The youngest carers

Talk about a hard road.

The number of people caring for an older person, someone with a disability or with a health condition is rising — we all know that. 

Considerably less well known, or appreciated, is the age of some of those who do the caring. 

In Britain this month, a new documentary looked at a previously unmined corner of the caring community: those who begin to look after ailing parents during their own childhood. 

As a riveting write up here in the Guardian notes, conventional wisdom holds that the parent-child covenant is a one-way street, at least during the tender years. Our parents bring us into the world, they attend to our needs until maturity is realised; we take, and theoretically, are grateful from the get-go.

For growing numbers of youngsters, however, that deal has been reversed, as Britain’s Youngest Carers appears to amply show. These are the kids who have become the de facto parents. It is they who fill the bath, test the water, spoon the food, fluff the pillow, and much else besides.

The Guardian produces the case of Liverpool, sisters Clare, 16, and Erin, 14, who look after a father with vascular dementia and a mother who also needs physical help all the time.

"I think it's going to be the hardest thing I ever do," says Clare, with wisdom beyond her years. Between them, the girls provide nine hours of care every day, fitting in schoolwork as the 'around it' item in their packed schedules.

Clare began administering her dad's medication when she was 10. She reeled off the drugs (over 20) and their side effects like a student nurse.

What happens next for these young British carers? The documentary does not really say.

Here in New Zealand, alas, we do not know enough to even ask the question.

With input from global young caring expert Professor Saul Becker Carers NZ estimates that 8% of New Zealand's under 15s have caring responsibilities; a similar number of 15 to 24 year olds identify in Census 2013 as young carers supporting someone who lives with them or in another location. With current and former young carers we are establishing an advisory group and starting to understand and help New Zealand's young carers. Learn more at www.facebook.com/youngcarersnz We thank Saul, himself a former young carer, for acting as the ongoing international advisor to Young Carers NZ.

David Cohen is a Wellington based author and journalist who often writes about health, disability, and ageing topics.