I have been a carer for most of my life. I’m only a young adult, but my role as a carer for my mum has shaped my days for as long as I can remember.
It would stun most people to know that there are an estimated two to three young carers in every classroom (ABS (2012) Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers). These children, teens and young adults are cooks, cleaners, nurses, entertainers, secretaries, personal shoppers and a sounding board for their disabled or ill loved ones to rely on.
They somehow juggle school and home life, and often sacrifice the personal aspirations and daily freedoms that others their age take for granted.
But for all that, in my experience, they often have a positive disposition; they manage their multiple responsibilities with determination, in the knowledge that – even if the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily see it – what they do is vital to their loved one.
This year, I have taken on the role of Young Carer Ambassador for Carers SA, I am also the South Australian representative for the Australian National Young Carer Action Team run by Carers Australia. I am very grateful to be a representative of young carers, to share my experiences and raise awareness about the issues young carers face.
My father was unwell with multiple disabilities before he passed away, my brother has autism and my mother has complex health issues that require constant care. It’s hard work, but love and lack of options means that this is my full-time job for now.
Like any young carer, I have had my challenges and dark times – but the thing that distinguishes a lot of young carers is their resilience.
Of course, in an ideal world, we wouldn’t need to take on such heavy burdens, sometimes alone, which is why advocacy organisations like Carers SA and awareness-raising activities like National Carers Week (October 12-18) are so important.
Carers are often the silent engines that keep their families intact and running and events such as Carers Week help remind the rest of the community of both their presence and their contribution to society. The work of carers is often unseen in public, but the role they play is truly selfless and remarkable.
On average, they provide about 40 hours of unpaid care each week – often while also studying or holding down a job and running the household. In economic terms, the contribution they make is huge, valued at $40.9 billion a year nationally (Access Economics (2010) The Economic Value of Informal Care in 2010).
A lot of people don’t understand what it means to be a carer; I’ve had teachers who thought I was a “wagger” because I had to miss days of school, not comprehending – or believing – that I needed to be home to care for my mum.
I never completed high school, due to mum’s bad health and because I couldn’t get the help and support services I required to balance my caring role, and my education.
But I’m optimistic for the future. I still hope to finish TAFE one day and begin a career in tourism. To do that, I know I will need more support than I can find today – all carers do.
That’s why it is important that governments think carefully about how their policies will affect carers; they must ensure they ease the financial burden and alleviate the shortage of support, and not unwittingly exacerbate it in any way.
It is also why it is important that we occasionally stop to say “thankyou” to carers, and show them that even though they may feel invisible, their contribution is truly appreciated.
* Tegan Heggblum is Carers SA Young Carer Ambassador.