Young carers need help too

21st July 2006 at 01:00
A survey by Highland Council found that one in 10 pupils cares for a relative. Keith Mackenzie spoke to two of them

Like most teenage boys in Scotland, Craig Macdonald and Jared Gordon have been looking forward to their annual six-week summer break.

The time that they spend away from school, however, will relieve them of just one half of their regular duties and they will continue to work - on call, unpaid and largely unseen - throughout their holidays.

It doesn't sound like the type of part-time job that would appeal to most teenagers, but Craig and Jared are certainly not alone. Indeed, recent studies have suggested they are part of an increasing army of youngsters who currently care for a sick or disabled relative at home, offering the kind of lifeline service which saves the health service and social services millions of pounds every year.

Craig has a younger brother who suffers from cerebral palsy, and his role is mainly one of support for his parents. It remains a significant burden for any 16-year-old, particularly since the boys' father is employed in the offshore industry and away from their home in Portree for much of the year.

The 16-year-old's daily routine can include helping with lifting, feeding and toilet duties along with simply spending vital time playing with his brother, who is just two years younger. The heavy lifting does take its toll, he admits, particularly with both parents often struggling with bad backs.

Help from Crossroads Care, which recently extended its service from three times a week to daily, eases the burden. But there remains much to cope with, physically and mentally.

"It takes two people to lift him, take him to the toilet and I help feed him sometimes. I spend time with him on his trampoline and his ball pool too," Craig said. As a result, he has concentration problems and tiredness can affect him at school.

It's a similar story for 14-year-old Jared from Glendale who helps provide a window to the outside world for his partially sighted 10-year-old brother. "He gets taught at home and I think he feels left out quite a bit," Jared said.

"I spend a lot of time talking to him and taking him out on his bike - although it can sometimes get a bit hard trying to entertain and supervise at the same time. And, because he doesn't go to school, he relies on me to be his gateway to the outside world."

Both boys admit to feelings of frustration over their caring role at times, but it is the perception of others which is often the most difficult to comprehend. One of Craig's biggest concerns is the treatment of his brother at the school they both attend in Portree.

"The school is fine with me, but sometimes I think it is completely incapable of looking after my brother," Craig said. "It has bought two new minibuses, neither of which has disabled access, and it still has not upgraded them. He has to get a taxi if they are going anywhere and feels left out.

"There is a lift in the school but he has been told that, in the event of a fire, he would have to stay in the building, find a safe place and wait for the fire brigade to come to him."

Quite where someone would find a "safe place" in the midst of a fire is open to question, but it's one that Craig and his family might not have to be worry about for too much longer. Craig's brother is shortly due to spend a trial period in a specially designed school in Lanark. The combination of the heavy lifting, the battle to secure extra support and the concerns over his education prompted the understandably heartbreaking decision to consider sending him to a school 250 miles away.

For the past six years, the Skye and Lochalsh Young Carers Project has offered help, support and respite to youngsters like Craig and Jared, who meet regularly at the group's new base in Portree.

A total of 48 youngsters from primary and secondary schools now attend the group, with numbers on the increase. Raising awareness, along with the perennial battle to secure funding, is one of the group's ongoing problems, Marjory Jagger, the project manager, says.

Teachers and friends can be unaware of young carers because children often choose to remain silent about their plight. "There is a stigma attached to a lot of cases. People might think a problem is self-inflicted and not worth the same help," Ms Jagger said. "That can happen with drink and drug addiction problems as well as some mental health illnesses."

Despite the project's apparent success, with the group growing in number every year, Ms Jagger said much of her time continued to be spent on applying for funding. A succession of lottery grants, donations from the BBC's Children in Need appeal and local fundraising keeps the organisation going but, as the project grows, so too does the level of funding needed to keep it alive.

Recent initiatives such as the "Heart Art" project - a compilation of poems by young carers - have helped raise awareness. Earlier this year, a sponsored walk from Portree to Broadford helped fund the group's annual weekend trip to Edinburgh - a period of three days' respite from their home lives.

But a satellite support group of around 12 young carers in the south end of Skye is already under threat as funds become more difficult to obtain. Ms Jagger said: "It's frustrating as it takes a lot of work to get funding, and we would prefer to use that time to provide more one-to-one support and training."

This article first appeared in the West Highland Free Press.

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