As part of the Context of Care for Children, Young People and their Families module, my child nursing group looked at how nurses can support young carers.
Young carers are people under-24 years of age who look after a family member needing practical and emotional support. Many young carers are ‘hidden’, either because they don’t recognise themselves as being a carer or they’re afraid if they make themselves known to health or social services it could disrupt their home life.
I met young carers in my previous job as an Outreach Worker for disabled children and their families. The siblings of the disabled children I cared for were often acting as young carers; some were only around 6 or 7 years old. It looked to be an exhausting, stressful and isolating job.
I felt genuinely sorry for them. They seemed to be missing out on their childhood and often struggled at school, suffered from health issues themselves, and didn’t have strong friendships or many opportunities to go out and have fun. Much of the research surrounding young carers focuses on the negative effects on every aspect their lives.
However, after visiting a youth centre for young carers and meeting some of the inspiring people who use the service, I began to perceive their role differently. Yes, they told us that caring for a family member is challenging and can be draining, but there are positives too.
The young carers said they felt proud of how they managed to look after their family member and it gave them a sense of purpose, identity and improved self esteem. They shared that they felt they were more independent and resourceful than other young people their age.
Many of the young carers we met said they felt well supported by schools, social services and healthcare teams and they spoke very highly of the young carers groups which offered them a place to go for ‘me’ time and organised lots of fun activities they could get involved in.
However, it was concerning to hear that some had very little support from outside services.
Joe, aged 16, said he was regularly given detentions at school for being late or not doing homework because looking after his mum who has serious mental health issues was time consuming and he struggled to meet deadlines.
Louise, aged 14, said from the age of 9 she regularly spent hours sat in hospital corridors waiting for her mum whilst she was having appointments. She said it was scary, she didn’t understand what the doctors had said to her mum and they didn’t know that she was a young carer.
Our student group asked the young carers how as nurses we could improve their experiences as carers. They said that recognising them if they are admitted to hospital or meeting them in the community would be helpful.
There isn’t a tick box on admission records to say that a young person is a carer; still, an awareness of the situation could improve care. Louise told us that ‘even coming over and saying hello or offering to explain medical jargon would be great’.
Joe said he once went into hospital with a broken leg. He was anxious and upset because he knew his mum was at home alone and he wasn’t there to give her medication. Joe explained how he had been worried that if he told nurses, they would involve social services which may see him separated from his mum as a result.
Overall, a better understanding of young carers and their role by nurses, as well as the fact that they might be ‘hidden’, and why, could all help improve outcomes for this exceptional group of young people.
(The names used in this article have been changed to protect identities and ensure confidentiality)
Chloe Alden-Dennis is Student Nursing Times’ student editor for children’s branch