Being a Student and a Young Carer
Annalise Janack is a student at Oxford while also being a young carer for her sister who has M.E. (Myalgic Encephalopathy). In between all of this she writes about current affairs and social justice issues on her website, justapersonthinking. Today she talks about the difficulties she’s faced while balancing her student life and carer life, and a few tips she’s picked up along the way.
Being a young carer is hard. Being a student is also hard. But being a young carer while studying full time is really hard.
Everyone here knows that there’s no standard story of disability, so it makes sense that no two experiences of being a young carer are the same either. Both my parents stay home to care for my sister, which means that my older sister and I are ‘secondary carers’. The phrase “it takes a village” comes to mind. My family are extremely fortunate to have a huge support network in our hometown, which means I can attend university in the first place.
When I’m away at university I can’t attend physiotherapy sessions or help my sister with lifting and showering, but I am on call to help with emotional and psychological health. I worry about her health everyday and I feel the familiar stab of fear whenever I hear she has a cold, which might set her back months. The dread of going back to university, knowing that her health could deteriorate even further while I’m away is awful. And my feelings are not irrational. My first term at Oxford, I left my sister in a wheelchair. When I returned for Christmas, she couldn’t sit up without fainting.
Then there’s the time I spend at home. Depending on my sister’s health, she can need a large amount of physical aid. The fact that it can change overnight makes being a carer while being a student a mentally and physically exhausting task. I can find myself torn between two anxieties: the guilt that I am never doing enough to help at home, and the fear that I am neglecting my studies at the same time.
I spent the better part of two years fumbling through being a student while my sister’s health spiralled out of my reach. The responsibility that comes with being a young carer can be relentless, just like the pressure to try and keep it together throughout it all. Luckily, I’ve also learned a few things to help survive life as a student carer…
· Try to tell other people at university about what’s going on at home. You are in no way obliged to share your saga (trust me, I know how tedious it gets) but I also know that as difficult as it can be initially, good things come out of sharing. At the very least, tell the tutors that you might have to turn to for support from at some point. If you can, tell your friends and try to find people in a similar position to you. Because they do exist. I promise.
· Accept that people won’t always have the perfect response to your issues. Being a carer is a life that is incredibly difficult to imagine unless you’ve been through it yourself; a bit like how you don’t notice how many places aren’t wheelchair accessible until you’ve been out with someone in a wheelchair. But it doesn’t mean they don’t care.
· Become entitled. If you need financial support because your caring responsibilities mean you don’t have time to get a job, then ask for it. Don’t be afraid to tell your tutors exactly what you need to be supported in your studies. After years of practice of putting someone else’s needs at the forefront of everything you do, putting yourself first can seem strange, but it’s also necessary for your own wellbeing. And you deserve it.
It took time for me to recognise that regardless of grades or marks, I am an asset to my university. All student carers are. We come from an overlooked group of people who are less likely to apply for university, and more likely to drop out of their studies. We still struggle to be recognised by the institutions we attend but in a way, this makes our achievements all the more significant. Being a student while being a young carer is hard. It’s also worth it.
Are you a student carer or know someone who is? Do you have any struggles or tips to share? Leave a comment below!
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