Former pop star Oritsé Williams remembered nursing his mother as a 12-year-old in this sobering look into the lives of child carers
Conventional thought has it that in the early years of the relationship, the parent-child covenant is almost exclusively a one-way street. Your parents bring you into the world and you settle in for a “here, let me do that” existence until such a time as you achieve a certain level of maturity and skill. But what happens when the roles are reversed – when the child becomes the de facto parent?
Britain’s Youngest Carers (Channel 4) met just a few of the “hidden army of young carers” that have taken on the job of looking after their ill and disabled parents and loved ones. There are officially 200,000 of them in the UK, though the unofficial figure veers into the absurd: 700,000. Ex-boyband member Oritsé Williams (formerly of JLS) was one of the army – he became his mum’s carer when he was 12 years old, after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. “I remember when I found you in the bath, half-conscious,” he said to his mum, and the camera. “I hope you realise that I appreciate you,” she replied.
No doubt about it, 12 is a ridiculously young age to be a carer – but consider six-year-old Ty-Reece in Lewisham, who began helping out his mum, without support, at the age of four. He had a wide-eyed, curious look about him, self-consciously tending to his mum. He brought over her pills and a glass of water. “Here you go, mummy,” he said. “I’ll open it for you. Is it too big? You’re welcome, mummy.” The solicitousness was stark. How many six-year-olds care – whichever definition you’re thinking of – this much? “The bath is full. It’s for you,” he told her after filling the tub, his eyes on the camera as he leaned in for a kiss and a hug. His mother, who has kidney failure and a host of other conditions, said he also helps to load the washing machine, do the dishes and tidy up. The loss of control in his young life means he sometimes throws tantrums when he can’t do what he wants.
Government and charity adviser Professor Saul Becker broke it down, sitting backwards on his chair like a trendy youth pastor: the number of carers in the five-to-seven age group has almost doubled since the 2001 census. And the majority of Britain’s young carers are silent, keeping their home situations to themselves and getting on with the incredibly tough job.
One such quiet carer was 13-year-old Josh, who helps to look after his terminally ill dad. He biked home from school, stripped off his outerwear and got stuck into providing respite for his mum. His dad was diagnosed with a brain tumour at 19 – barely out of childhood himself – and since then has had multiple strokes and seizures. Now, Josh helps feed him via a tube. “Make sure there’s no bubbles, cos then you get air in the stomach,” he said, explaining how the tube worked. His tenderness with his father was noticeable, but there was a steeliness to him that no child should develop that young. “I’m quite fortunate,” he said stoically, before heading off to Cadets.
Williams visited a support group in south London where the gaggle of young carers squealed when he walked in. For them, the group is a way to get away from it all, and having a former pop star come by certainly helps. They shared their stories: one carer spoke about having to change from a boy to a man (he looked about 14); another about the cycle of upset – she’d bottle up her feelings, get angry, tell her mum, which would upset them both. There were tears (on screen, and in my house). Williams was great throughout. Sometimes, the celebrity angle comes good.
In Liverpool, sisters Clare, 16, and Erin, 14, 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,” said 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. Erin broke my heart talking about herself: “I’m not a very confident person. They don’t know what stress I’m under. They just think I get on with things but I don’t. I find it really difficult.”
The issue of administering medications is a thorny one. According to Professor Becker, healthcare professionals feel that training children up constitutes a tacit acceptance of the lot of young carers. Nothing truly terrible has been reported, but with the numbers being what they are, he said, it was only a matter of time. There are already enough scars, with the often intimate care kids have to provide.
What next for these young carers? More of the same, really. Change – dependent on resources and politics – comes slowly or not at all. In the meantime, they carry on. “It’s just life now,” Josh said. And life is for getting on with, regardless of the difficulties.