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Anyone can be a carer, and while many of us don’t think of ourselves as being one, if you’re supporting someone you know, you are a carer. You could be a friend, neighbour, child, parents, aunt or a sibling.
Young carers are “children and young people, aged 25 years or under, helping support a family member or friend living with disability, mental illness, drug or alcohol dependency, chronic condition, terminal illness or who are frail.”
You could be full-time caring, or if you’re helping a parent in and out of bed or managing your grandparents’ medication, you might already be a young carer without realising it.
Although Australian Bureau of Statistics research estimates approximately 260,000 young Australians are carers (or over 3% of people under 25), that figure likely underestimates how many young Australians offer care.
How I became a young carer
I was a 20-year-old full-time journalism student on the Gold Coast. My family moved from Sydney so I could chase my journo dreams while collectively we made a fresh start.
In September 2008, I received a voicemail from my sister that Mum had collapsed at home and was on her way to the hospital. Mum was 43 and previously healthy. Tests revealed she suffered an extraordinarily rare stroke, and her condition rapidly deteriorated.
Fewer than 72 hours later, when I was meant to sit a uni exam, I was instead having an urgent conversation with a neurologist. I consented to an experimental operation, with a 20% chance of Mum surviving and needing 24/7 care for the rest of her life. As she was wheeled away for the operation, I was told to say my final goodbyes to her.
It was a lot going on for a 20-year-old.
Thankfully, Mum survived the seven-hour operation. Thirteen more operations followed as the stroke’s damage meant she needed to relearn everything in her life. The permanent effects on her brain, vision, speech, mobility and more meant a long road of rehabilitation, therapy and medication.
Mum defied medical history with her recovery, being discharged four months later. Although this was seemingly the happy ending to a horrific story, I was officially a 24/7 young carer.
As a carer, you put others before yourself. I didn’t grieve my life being turned upside down because I didn’t have time. There’s no book on how to deal with the situations necessitating you to become a carer — you roll with the punches as best as you can.
Immediate challenges included relocating to find appropriate, stair-free housing for us while urgently becoming familiar with booking support plus organising and delivering medication.
Being a young carer and its impact
Caring for someone around the clock is confronting. The feeling of ‘I need to be switched on mentally’ never quite goes away, even if you’re lucky enough to find respite.
As a young carer, it’s a strange feeling having family responsibility. It’s a lot of pressure and goes against your life of listening to and following your parents. Inevitably, the disrupted dynamic leads to family dysfunction and more stress.
Respite is also an expense, so part of you feels like it’s cheaper to stay home, or when you do leave home, you’re too tired to do anything considered ‘fun.’
This workload meant my uni degree, career plans and social life were all indefinitely on hold. When friends were finishing degrees, finding love, travelling overseas and starting careers, I was helping Mum toilet, shower, and lifting her when she fell while learning how to walk again.
What could I talk about with people my age?
My physical and mental health hasn’t been the same since. There are days I physically ache head to toe or have extreme fatigue for no reason and anxiety is something I live with. I was never like that before being a carer.
Eventually returning to uni meant studying one course per semester — a three-year degree took me seven and a half years to complete.
After nearly six years of caring, I eventually was able to move out of home. My new reality was that of a 26-year-old uni graduate in a tight job market. Candidates my age instead had years of professional development, career moves and income. I had little professional development, a non-existent career and was a pensioner from 20 – how exactly do you list being a carer for six years on your CV?
While I was grateful to receive carer payments, being a carer capped my earning potential and meant missing out on years of super. There’s so much more young carers sacrifice than what may meet the eye.
It took me a year — and relocating back home to Sydney — to get my first full-time marketing position, and since then, I’ve been on a mission to catch up on what I missed out on.
I’m now 34, happily married and giving back professionally through Mable, but my biggest win is survival. I felt defined by being a carer, and considering I spent two years in what I’d describe as full-24/7 mode with little else in my life, it was hard back then to find an argument against it.
Getting support as a young carer
I wish Mable was around back then because it would have saved countless phone calls and time. Mable takes the guesswork out for carers. One easy location for carers to build a support team fitting our budget and criteria. I don’t need to make phone calls researching market rates or asking for every worker’s qualifications because I can see their indicative rates on the Mable website, in addition to Mable’s strict verification process for signing up.
You can sometimes feel powerless as a carer, but Mable flips that because it puts me in control of building a support team, rather than being assigned a worker and having no say in costs or team-building.
It’s also helpful to pay Mable directly, rather than workers as it establishes professional boundaries and means high-level insurances with every booking.
Know your worth as a young carer
For any other young carers finding themselves in that self-worth dilemma — the care you’re giving to your loved one is one of the greatest acts you’ll ever make.
You’re giving your time, energy and spirit to helping someone close to you make the most of their life. That’s an incredible gift. You are gaining a life perspective you never would otherwise, and the lessons you learn last a lifetime.