Nearly three quarters (73 per cent) of young carers feel lonely during the summer holidays, according to worrying new research released today by Action for Children Northern Ireland.
The survey of young carers under 18 years old reveals nearly half (47 per cent) spend more than four hours a day during the summer caring for a relative – the equivalent of losing an entire week of their holidays. And while many families across Northern Ireland are enjoying quality time together on a trip away, thousands of young carers remain trapped at home – shockingly, more than one in five (21 per cent) said they have never been on a summer holiday with their family.
With so much time taken up caring for loved ones and less time to relax, more than two thirds (68 per cent) feel more stressed or worried during the holidays; while more than half (57 per cent) worry about talking about what they did in the summer break when they go back to school.
There are an estimated 700,000 children and young people across the UK caring for a family member with a disability, illness or mental health problem – some as young as five years old. Typically, young carers help with practical tasks around the home such as cooking, housework and shopping; physical care, such as helping someone out of bed; and personal care, such as helping someone dress.
Dawn Shaw, Action for Children’s Director in Northern Ireland, said: “The summer holidays can be heartbreaking for young carers who are often isolated and trapped at home, while their friends are having fun in the sunshine, playing sports or enjoying adventures abroad.
“We see first-hand the awful impact of loneliness and stress on young carers, who are desperate for a break from their duties and to have a bit of fun – that’s why young carer respite services are a lifeline for them. We are delighted that Action for Children secured the continuation of funding for support for Young Carers in the Belfast, Southern and South Eastern Trust area so we can continue to provide vital support in these areas.”
Nine-year-old Alex Tavey’s life is very different from that of his friends. While the rest of his primary five class are enjoying hobbies or playing on games consoles, Alex is pitching in to help care for his two younger siblings. Alex, from Newry, is one of 6,500 children under the age of 16 in Northern Ireland taking on a caring role in the home.
His mum Martina describes Alex as her “little superhero” and says she wouldn’t be able to cope without him but that she battles “constant guilt” for the responsibility her little boy is shouldering. She explained, “I do feel constantly guilty for having to lean so heavily on Alex at such a young age, and he does not have a normal life of a young person,” says Martina, who has four-year-old twin girls, Zoe and Ruby, both of whom have special needs.
Zoe has severe autism, is completely non-verbal and needs round-the-clock care. Her twin sister has been diagnosed with learning difficulties. Martina also has a seven-year-old son, Podraig, who has vision problems.
Alex massively steps up to the plate to help his sisters and brother and support his mother. He does Podraig’s homework with him, helps with nappy duties and sits with his sister Zoe, who cannot be left alone, while his mum carries out household chores. Alex also has to accompany his mum in the car when Zoe needs to go anywhere because she tries to harm herself if she is left alone. Last year the nine-year-old gave up his twice-weekly football practice and swimming classes so that he could be at home to help out.
For Martina, young carers like her son are the forgotten heroes of the care system. She says her home life is a constant pressure and she is under such strain that she is always shouting orders at the kids and feels bad that it is Alex who takes the weight off. “He has always been caring beyond his years,” Martina says.
Children’s Services Manager Wendy McKimmie explained the vital role that the charity offers Young Carers.“The Young Carers project see the increased pressure Young Carers and their families face during the summer holidays,” she explained. “School for many of our young carers is often an opportunity to get a break from their caring role, with no school in place their caring role often increases as does their isolation and opportunities to socialise with their peers.
“Staff in the young cares project often find that one to one sessions increase over the summer holidays, parents and young people find it difficult to cope with the increase in the caring role and isolation, this puts added pressure on the family and they often need a break.
“Our Young Carers Service had another very successful annual Fun Day in June 2018 at Ulster Folk Museum, 119 young carers and their families attended and had the opportunity to enjoy activities as a whole family.”
Image Caption: Alex with Louis Walsh at this year’s Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards where his support for his mum and younger siblings was celebrated with a Special Recognition Award.