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Young Carers and their Families. By Becker S, Aldridge J, Dearden C. (Pp 144; paperback £14.99.) Blackwell Science, 1998. ISBN 0 632 04966 9 .
A day in the life of a child caring for a parent with multiple sclerosis.
Children caring for their parents or other children in the family are familiar to those who have worked in the third world but even with the UK’s welfare service and safety net there are between 15 and 40 000 child carers nationwide. Oddly, just before starting to read this book I attended a meeting at a local school where we have begun a system of multiagency review of pupils not in school; the first young person discussed was caring for a parent and grandparent. We need to be more aware of this problem—hence this academic overview is welcomed.
Written by a trio of sociologists the book comes from a community and family based perspective but there is much of value to paediatricians. The authors first describe three perspectives on child carers: the impact of disability on the family, which is mainly medical; the children’s rights angle; and the view of the disability rights movement. The first is viewed rather negatively as being narrow, but to me portrays the emotional and educational impact on the child of being a carer: “Every child needs to grow up in a stable environment characterised by consistent relationships. Many children are instead subjected to unending crises stemming from a parent’s illness and repeated hospitalisation which provoke chronic uncertainty and unresolved grief that can be more stressful to a child than the loss of a parent through divorce or death.” Thus the role of carer can restrict the child’s education, can create physical burdens that their bodies are unprepared for, and confront them with a picture of suffering that has long term harm.
The children as carers literature tells why children take on care giving roles: a major factor is lone parenthood, another is reluctance of their father to take on caring activity; sadly the failure of services to recognise the needs of children and indeed sometimes to withdraw their provision is a notable factor. Inevitably, poverty is an ever present contributor. We learn of the involvement of young carers in intimate tasks; one girl cared for her father from the age of 9 following a stroke: “I did stop showering him at about 14 or 15, but recently that’s started again. I didn’t like showering him any more. You know, I thought ‘I want my privacy, I’m sure he wants his’, and I’m sure he doesn’t like me having to shower him and I certainly don’t like doing it. I suppose it was embarrassment. You know—it takes up so much time, it takes about an hour from start to finish, you know, get him in the shower and get him out and dressed.”
Children carers have little power or status and families assume that what has begun voluntarily will become embedded in their habits, even though the young person would rather relinquish the role.
School attendance and performance is poor among young care givers; one study found that one in four were missing school. It is a poor reflection on school health services that support has not been provided to help these children back into school.
I found that the authors take a long time to make a few simple points. Having learned that caring is common and not beneficial for children, I wanted to know what I should do but there are no clear messages. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child should underpin policy, but its impact in the UK has been limited. Only 11 of 71 local authorities defined these children as in need under the Children’s Act. The Carers Act 1996 ensures that children may request to have their needs assessed but in a typical British Catch 22, the Act does not oblige departments to provide any services.
A useful type of support are the Young Carers’ Projects with now over 100 in the UK. These raise awareness, develop supportive services, act on behalf of young carers to ensure that they receive appropriate benefits, and arrange leisure activities.
The authors identify the need to inform young carers on medical conditions, pointing out that this is woefully inadequate and that many children know so little about their parents’ medical condition that they had invented their own version of diagnosis, prognosis, and consequences.
It saddened me that in the section on the role of professionals in identifying and assisting young carers, there is no mention of paediatricians. Is this because they are seen as purely medical, or because they have little contact with young carers? I suspect that it is the former, and that we need to be more outspoken about our wish to work across disciplines on behalf of children’s health. We also need to look out for child carers in the families whom we see.
What I searched for was a child or young person’s perspective, to try and understand some of the positive aspects of caring. I found little, perhaps because little has been done. Usually children have pretty good answers to difficult questions. Searching hard, I found a reference to a national survey of young people in which they thought that children of 10 should make their own bed and help with the washing up, children of 14 could take a part time job, young people at 16 could baby sit a child of 5, and 18 year olds could marry and vote. Caring for a parent was not mentioned.
So what might paediatricians take away from this book? First, an understanding that children who are carers are around and are being harmed; second, that they are often invisible to the agencies who should be helping; and third, that we have a role in highlighting this type of exploitation, as well as looking out for young carers among our patients. We would do well to network with the agencies locally who have young carers’ projects. Only when I was writing this did I discover who they are in my district.