Younger carers don’t fit cliche leaving them lonely and unsupported

LONDON: Younger carers don’t fit the cliche and it’s leaving them feeling lonely and unsupported.

In 2010, Megan Gannon was “footloose and fancy free, living overseas and having a great time”.

But when her fiercely independent mum Mary was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease that year, Gannon, then 30 years old, returned to Victoria.

As her mother’s condition deteriorated over the next couple of years, Gannon found herself in the role of carer.

“It was really rough,” she says.

Not only because she was facing the prospect of losing her mother, Gannon felt completely alone in her new carer position.

“What amplified the stress and isolation was that most of my friends were having babies,” she says.

“I didn’t know anyone who was in a similar situation to me.”

Gannon believes part of her feeling of isolation was also due to a common misconception that only older people take on the carer role.

She wants more discussion about younger carers so those who mightn’t fit the stereotype aren’t left feeling unseen and unsupported.

Of the 2.6 million carers in Australia, over 234,000 are under 25. That’s one in 12.

Over 480,000 are aged between 25 and 40, according to 2018 Australian Bureau of Statistics figures.

These statistics run counter to what Gannon considers a widely held cliche. She says many believe that in order to be a carer “you have to be taking a payment from Centrelink, [be] a woman in your 60s and have the patience of a saint”.

It’s a view she once held, too, until she became a carer and couldn’t recognise herself in the stereotype.

“In those early years, I absolutely did not identify as a carer. But in hindsight, I was ticking all the boxes,” she says.

That’s despite the fact that, for a significant chunk of her 30s, Gannon scaled back on work to support her mother. At times, she stopped work altogether.

Now she thinks differently about what being a carer looks like.

“If you’re lying awake in bed stressing about the wellbeing and health of a loved one and putting their needs above yours, and your life and lifestyle is suffering, and your career, then I think we can definitely say that you’re a carer.

“Unpaid family caregiving is something that more people do than they realise.”

Carers of all ages consistently report feeling isolated and unrecognised, says Myra Hamilton, associate professor at the University of Sydney’s ARC Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research.

To shift this, one positive step would be a change in workplace culture, where carers’ leave is often seen as being only for parents of young children.

“It’s not talked about in a way that it’s OK for carers to use those kinds of provisions as well,” Dr Hamilton says.

“We really need to do a lot more.

“We’re so much further down the path in supporting parents of young children to take leave and work flexibly.”

Nicole Dunn, a former carer and the director of aged care consultancy Empower, agrees that more workplace flexibility for carers is “absolutely” needed.

She was working full-time when she suddenly became a full-time carer for her grandmother. She says balancing work and caring was “extremely difficult”.

Dunn believes not enough is done to support carers in Australia, at a policy level in particular.

“A lot of that has to do with the fact that women do most of the care work and … [it’s] something that happens in the private sphere, and [is] not something that is really the concern of policymakers,” she says.

“Over the years we have understood much better that, of course, it’s not just a private matter.

“It’s a very important public issue.”

Gannon’s experience of caring for her mother, who died in October 2019, had a significant impact on her life. As she stepped back from work, her career trajectory was affected and her superannuation took a hit.

There was also an emotional toll.

“Looking after a loved one declining over several years, it’s really tough,” she says.

The feeling was compounded by a sense of being alone in the experience. To combat this, Gannon started up an online network called Keeping Mum, seeking a way to share her story and build a community for other young carers.

The network has been hugely useful for her. Through it, she’s connected with others in a similar situation in countries around the world.

“It’s become really wonderful,” she says.

“I think it’s really key to be able to connect with people, get tips and share stories, and unload as well.”

And despite the bad rap self-care sometimes gets, Gannon says it’s essential to avoid “carer burnout”.

Ask for help when you need it, take time out for yourself, and consider counselling or some other therapy, she recommends.

“It’s really important to look after yourself.”