When you are tube-fed, I think it’s only natural to expect the support of your nearest and dearest, especially in the case of the tube-fed child. In a recent interview about her MS diagnosis, actress Jamie-Lynn Sigler from the US TV show “The Sopranos” said that “when one person in the family has a chronic illness, the whole family has it.” and this really resonated with me. M, I hope, has never needed to question the unfailing and unconditional support that Mike and I will give him along every step of his journey, but it’s not just us who have walked that way with him over the last 12 months. Without any say in the matter, G has been dragged along for the ride too and has been a great comfort and support to M when it matters most, arguments and fallings-out aside. I have talked before about the amazing community that surrounds our family, but G has been something of an unsung hero in the story. Over the last few years we have seen her struggle to cope with the reality of having a chronically ill brother, which has manifested itself in behaviour and attitudes that are less than ideal and which need love and understanding in the most testing of times. We work hard to try to give G as much time as we can, but sometimes that can’t be as much as we’d want, especially when going through a particularly tough time with M. Sometimes siblings need more time than the parents can find, so who is it that can help parents support these young supporters?
Many people will have heard of Young Carers projects, but perhaps will not realise how massive and vital a role these groups can play in families dealing with chronic illness. Young carers are defined as “children and young people who often take on practical and/or emotional caring responsibilities that would normally be expected of an adult.” Being a young carer is an isolating experience as the child may be reluctant to discuss their home life with friends at school for fear of bullying and will often feel that they are in a unique situation. Young Carers groups try to meet on a regular basis to give the youngsters a much-needed break from the day-to-day, the opportunity to meet other young carers who will truly understand the pressures and strains they are under and the chance to have fun and be a child. Depending on the location, and sadly on the funding available, these organisations may offer evening clubs, weekends away, days out and even holidays as well as friendly advice, information and counselling to both the young carer and their family. In our area, there is also a school worker who runs lunchtime clubs at some of the local secondary schools, hold awareness assemblies and will act as an advocate for the child if needed.
Frequently these youngsters don’t identify themselves in the role of a young carer and it came as no surprise to me that G didn’t as I certainly had never really thought about her in terms of being a young carer until fairly recently. Thanks to a well-placed poster, a stray comment at school and some gentle prodding from a fab EGID friend, I contacted our local Young Carers group, filled in their referral document and sent it off with my fingers tightly crossed that something helpful would come from it. With the most amazing coincidental timing, at almost the same time that I was waiting for a reply, G had spotted a poster in the Year 7 canteen, took a photo on her phone and showed it to me, asking if I thought this was something that she could find out more about. Delighted that she was interested in this support and wanting to encourage her to investigate the opportunity under her own steam too, I agreed that she should contact the teacher named and see what further information she would be given from within school. She and a close friend in a not-too-dissimilar position have since met with this teacher a couple of times and have been given more information about our local young carers group as well as a list of useful contact names and numbers.
We also had a positive response from my referral form and last week G and I met with Hannah, one of the Young Carers team. She was with us for about an hour and talked to G about all things Young Carers. Having established that G understood what was meant by the term “young carer”, Hannah then took the time to explain how G fit into that role and then they discussed at length just how G helps M and the rest of the family and how she feels about it. I stayed in the kitchen the whole time, but switched between sitting at the table with them and carrying on with preparing feeds, meds, packed lunches and dinner in order to give G the chance to open up about her feelings. I reassured her that we wanted her to be 100% honest about the emotional impact that M’s illness has on her and was pleased to hear her being just that. Nothing she said surprised me in the slightest and I found it a relief to see her open to the idea of the Young Carers groups and all they can offer. She is keen to get started as soon as possible and is just waiting for the paperwork to be processed and the invitation to drop onto the doormat Hogwarts-style!
I am fascinated and pleased to see that there is an increasing awareness worldwide of the lasting impact of chronically ill siblings on children and the need to seek ways to effectively support them as they grow up, often in the shadow of the sick child. Last year I became aware of another fantastic project, this time by Australian photographer, Alexandrena Parker and Rare Voices Australia, entitled The Forgotten Ones, which sought to highlight this aspect of the rare disease community and “…to celebrate and recognise the unspoken and often forgotten support that siblings provide to loved ones suffering.” This is just one person’s small step to make a difference to these unfailing supporters, but with the help of projects like The Forgotten Ones and Young Carers, we can all help support our sick children and their unsung heroes.
*The wonderful charity, Over the Wall, also provides respite camps for sick children, their siblings and their families, either all together or separately. You can find out more here.