Community Care’s exclusive survey of young carers shows that half will spend more than five hours caring for another member of the family this Christmas. Derren Hayes talks to one young carer about her plans for the Christmas holidays
Genefer Sales is as excited about her impending trip to Lapland, with some family friends, as any child would be as Christmas approaches.
But Genefer, aged nine, will be hoping for something this Christmas that most children take for granted. “I’d like my elder brother Tom to be able to get me a drink for a change,” she says with frustration.
As the only member of the Sales family from Cheam, Surrey, not to have a disability, Genefer has taken on responsibilities well beyond her years. On most days she will be doing chores around the house for her mum, Jane, who has osteoarthritis in her knees. She also helps get her 12-year-old brother ready for school and her dad, Mike, with the shopping. Both suffer from Asperger’s syndrome.
Due to her family’s circumstances, Genefer’s day is fairly untypical for a schoolgirl of her age. And while the Christmas holidays provide an opportunity for her friends to play around the clock with new toys and watch their favourite TV programmes, for Genefer they are a time when caring responsibilities increase.
During the holidays Jane receives less outside support, so relies on Genefer more for help with household chores. With Tom also being on holiday from the special school he attends, much of her time is spent keeping tabs on him. Genefer is a keen cook and has helped prepare and cook the Christmas dinner before.
Genefer is a bright and happy girl and, whether because of modesty or simply not knowing any different, doesn’t think what she does is that big a deal. But proud mum Jane explains: “Gen helps me around the house a lot, not in the sense of scrubbing floors or anything like that but frequently fetching things for me and helping in the kitchen or going upstairs to take/collect things for me. Or when we are out she insists on carrying bags as it is difficult for me on crutches.”
When she’s not helping out over the Christmas holidays, Genefer says she’ll go swimming with her schoolfriends and watch her favourite film Calamity Jane. And she’ll also play with Tom and help him with his homework.
Despite being three years his junior, Genefer has always looked out for her brother, says Jane. “Almost since she was a toddler she seems to have recognised that Tom has problems and has been eager to help. He did not know how to play and Gen would often show him, especially make-believe games like playing shops, and would help him socially when he’s not known what to do.”
To an outsider, Genefer seems older than her nine years. Not only has she experienced more emotional trauma than most children twice her age – she helped nurse her dad through cancer and both her grandfathers died a few years ago – but her tastes and opinions seem more grown up than those of her peers. Her favourite dishes to cook are Wan-ton soup and spaghetti bolognese. She proudly explains: “I love rump steak cooked medium-rare”.
However, her experiences have left their mark. “Mum says I’m a little worrier,” Genefer admits.
Recognising the impact the family situation has had on her daughter, Jane adds: “I would say the biggest worry for me is the things she misses out on. She doesn’t very often have friends round to play because it is hard for me to look after children or take them out. She wants to do and see so much but doesn’t get to because I am limited as to what I can do and where I can go. She has missed out on an awful lot of attention from me in her life.”
It is for this reason that the Sutton Young Carers group throws a Christmas party every year as a way of celebrating the achievements of children like Genefer and giving them the chance to let their hair down for the day. And with the added bonus of the Lapland trip coming up, Mike hopes this year will be a special Christmas for his daughter.
“Christmas should be a very special time for Gen,” Mike says. “She doesn’t want to lose her childhood, otherwise life would become just too dour.”
SUPPORTING YOUNG CARERS
The Young Carers Service (YCS) is part of this and aims to identify and raise awareness of young carers in the UK so that they are recognised and valued in their role. It provides support, information and advice to young carers and their families, and advocates on their behalf.
One of the service’s key functions is to put on events and activities to help give young carers a break from their daily routines. Over the past few months, a ceramics and football day have been held, and throughout December there are trips to the pantomime and ice skating scheduled as well as the annual Christmas party.
● For more information, contact 0208 296 5611 or email@example.com
This article appeared in the 6 December issue under the headline “‘The biggest worry is what she’s missing out on'”