March 16, 2021

The impact of coronavirus on young carers – could it extend beyond lockdown?

Hundreds of thousands of young people across the UK provide unpaid care at home for family members and friends. It has been widely recognised that the pandemic has made a difficult situation a lot worse for many of these young carers.

Emma’s story

17 year old Emma helps care for her father who has a degenerative neurological condition. Prior to the pandemic he had a team of carers coming into the house four times per day. However, due to his extremely vulnerable status Emma was very worried about people coming in and out of the house and putting him at risk. The number of carer visits was therefore reduced to the essential morning and evening calls only.

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Emma

Visits from carers during the day were needed when Emma was out or at college but now she was studying from home she thought that these were no longer worth the risk. This put a lot more pressure on Emma, but she said that she did not think twice about it; she was extremely worried and anxious about her father becoming ill with coronavirus and knew that if he contracted it he was unlikely to survive.

Prior to the pandemic, Emma and her father had regular visitors. They have a close network of family and friends, who offered a great deal of help, but this support network disappeared overnight. “Although there is provision for support bubbles we were really worried about dad getting ill so cut all physical contact with people” Emma said. “We had lots of telephone and Skype calls with family and friends which was good, it made us feel that we were not alone but it wasn’t the same as getting physical help”.

Getting the food she and her father needed was a real challenge at the height of the pandemic, so she was lucky that she had family and friends to help. Even though her father is vulnerable she found it hard to get online delivery slots and felt unsafe visiting supermarkets. Emma can recall one occasion when she made use of the carers/vulnerable people’s hour at the local supermarket, only to encounter lots of strange looks and whispering. It felt as though people did not believe she should be there.

Doing her college work online also became a struggle as she juggled this with caring for her father. Moving to online learning is in itself a steep learning curve, but with no support and the added pressure of caring for her father it must have felt an almost insurmountable challenge. During the day, as well as college work, Emma had to remember to give her father his medication, help him change his catheter bag and provide him with food and drink; all jobs that carers would usually do. “I was so worried about forgetting something and not remembering dad’s medication I found it hard to concentrate”, Emma said, “I set lots of reminders on my phone and they just kept going off”.

The hardest part of the pandemic for Emma though has been the lack of escape. Every day feels the same to her. Not only has her caring role increased but she is now unable to go out, socialise with friends or go to the gym which was her usual release. Even when the restrictions were eased during the summer, Emma was too scared to go out and mix with people in fear of the fact that she could pass something onto her father.

Fortunately Emma’s father has now had his first dose of the vaccination and Emma is feeling a little more positive, although she thinks she will be on heightened alert for a long time to come and will find it hard to go back to normal life.

How does this compare with the experience of other young carers?

Sadly Emma’s story is not unusual. The Carers Trust carried out a survey back in the summer, looking at the impact of coronavirus on young carers and young adult carers. They received 961 responses to their survey which showed that worries relating to coronavirus and the increased isolation caused by the lockdown resulted in a substantial decline in the mental health and wellbeing of young carers.

40% and 59% of young and young adult carers respectively say their mental health is worse now since the pandemic began, with 11% and 19.7% reporting an increase in 30 hours or more in the amount of time they spend caring. Some are now spending over 90 hours a week caring for family members.

The Carers Trust state that:

“even before the outbreak of Coronavirus, young carers and young adult carers were all too often spending significant amounts of time caring for a relative in addition to the time they needed to spend on education, work and time for themselves. Coronavirus has significantly increased those pressures.”

The results of this survey were published in June 2020 so the full extent of the impact of coronavirus, especially now that the lockdown period has been increased will undoubtedly be significantly worse than these statistics indicate.

Research from the Children’s Society paints a similar picture. They report that:

  • 67% of young carers said their caring role increased in lockdown
  • 59% of young carers said they were not able to take a break from caring
  • 80% of young carers felt more isolated

The other potential impacts

Our Compensation Protection Unit works closely with many families who live with long-term disability. They also understand that increased time spent caring is just one of the many pressures on a young carer since the pandemic began, as reflected in Emma’s story.

Mirroring Emma’s story, trips to the shops where carers have no private transport of their own become much more risky. However, this is just one aspect of the challenge people have had seeking basic resources – should have a family have experienced a loss of income, either due to furlough or redundancy, they may not have had any additional financial support coming in to help them buy what they need.

What is more, given the challenges that everyone has had with education, the impact of the pandemic will surely have disadvantaged many young carers in school and college and could even have set them back.

CCMS Ltd, a case management company and sponsor of our upcoming Ahead Together Conference in September, asked some young carers they work with how it has affected their school time and whether they feel they’ve fallen behind:

"It’s the constant worrying of what is my sister is doing and that she is ok. We are probably therefore not focussing 100% on the task in hand. It’s more the worry though, and if she walks in you get distracted. Also, the juggling and the time it takes explaining why we are living like this at the moment. That’s when it’s hard to keep your cool and not get angry."

And as kids are struggling to go to school, so are they struggling to socialise with others their age. This was something highlighted by an example from the Carers’ Centre in BANES, where one of the young carers they support has struggled to engage socially with people their age since the pandemic started:

“Their caring role has dramatically increased and they aren’t getting any break from their brother. At the same time, there are also wanting to be with their brother (who they care for) constantly so that he can make sure he is safe and that Mum gets a break.

There are no face to face services (apart from school) at this time to give them a break from their caring role. They usually do lots of clubs and see friends so they are struggling to connect with other children now that this usual routine has stopped.”

Another pressure on top of an already stressful situation.

It is therefore of little surprise that young carer’s mental health has been so impacted, as set out in the Carers Trust’s study – they have had to shoulder many burdens as well as the increased responsibility for their disabled family members.

How this will play out as lockdowns are again lifted – if young carers feel safe to leave the house anyway – is uncertain. However, we hope that young carers get the support they need should they have fallen behind in education or if they are struggling with mental health issues.

What is being done to help young carers?

Lots of online resources have been available for young carers. The Children’s Society ‘include service’ has been running meetings for practitioners and schools to figure out the best ways to support young carers. They have also been offering online therapy sessions with a focus on mental health and well‑being along with daily video chats.

More local to some of our teams, BANES Carers’ Centre also offers a lot of support for young people through their dedicated website.

What more needs to be done?

Based on the survey findings, Carers Trust is calling for:

  • greater prioritisation of mental health support for young carers. It is vital that mental health services and schools supporting a child or young person with their mental health ask about caring responsibilities and encourage that child or young person to get support with caring;
  • greater support from education providers and employers to help young carers and young adult carers to juggle their caring roles alongside school, college, university or work. Like other children and young people, they have goals and aspirations. Without the right support, young carers and young adult carers are at risk of lower exam results, and spending less time in education.

It is clear that, as is the case for all of us, the pandemic has had a profound impact on young carers. What makes their position more difficult is that, due to the nature of their day-to-day lives, the pandemic has made what is already challenging and precarious even worse. The mental health impact, due to time pressures, pressure from school, a lack of social interaction and much more, has been huge.

We hope that more is done in the near future to help young carers, and that the lockdown has drawn a spotlight on to the particular challenges they face even before the pandemic.

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