Who are young carers?
A young carer is a child or young person up to 25 years of age who provides care when a parent or other family member becomes ill. This can be occasional help or extended hours of daily care. It can involve providing household care (eg, shopping, cooking), intimate care (toileting / bathing) or physical care (eg, lifting and carrying).
Surveys in Australia, Great Britain, Europe and the United States of America have found that surprisingly large number of children are the main carer for a parent or grandparent. Until recently, such young carers were not acknowledged very well. Lately, there have been important steps taken to provide services for young carers. For example, health professionals are becoming aware of the need to provide good information and support to young carers and treat them with respect.
Problems facing young carers in end-of-life caring
Young people who undertake physical care can be injured if they are not of adult strength. They can sometimes be given too much responsibility for their age (eg, responsible for drugs and drips). They can suffer great emotional distress if they do not have people who support them and respect their efforts in caring. They may require particular assistance to manage and organise an appropriate care circumstance.
Caring for a parent who is ill and dying is very psychologically demanding. Young people may be at particular risk of depression and overwhelming anxiety.
If families have had divorces or deaths this can create additional challenges in coping together. Children and adolescents can feel caught in the middle. Support from an experienced counsellor who understands about serious illness and its consequences can help young carers to keep on caring well.
Caring for someone who is seriously ill can interfere with schoolwork and may lead to time away from school, or from friends and other social activities.
Bereavement can be very painful and grief counselling can be very helpful.
Resources for young carers
Young carers may need support in accessing services for themselves and for those they are caring for. They can be financially vulnerable. Social work assistance through Centrelink may be valuable. School support and involvement may also be appropriate to ensure that their education needs are being met. School counsellors can help them negotiate a special curriculum.
Social workers or psychologists in the hospital and in community health centres can provide assistance. Those who work in palliative care or have experience of end of life care can help young people consider what kind of information they need. This information might be from the sick parent, or other people who are helping to care, and it can include what to ask the doctors and the nurses. State carer associations can also assist with help and advice.
Palliative Care Australia’s resource Journeys provides information on end-of-life issues where the family member being cared for is another child.