A teenager who looks after his younger brother and sisters, after their mum was left unable to walk following a chance fall, is helping shape future health services for other young carers.
Will Lewis Brown was among dozens of family carers from across North Wales who enjoyed circus skills, confidence boosting sessions and a gig by rock band Contagious at an activity day organised by Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board.
The aims of the event were to provide a much needed recreational outlet for young carers and also to assess how the health board can better cater for their unique needs.
For Will from Cymau, Wrexham, it was also a chance to meet other young carers and share their experiences, and gain new skills to boost his dreams of becoming an actor.
Two years ago Will took on the role of caring for his brother Brandon, then aged 15, plus sisters Evie, 14, and Izzy, nine, when he was at school and about to sit his GCSEs, after their mum Victoria Travers slipped while out walking her family’s pet dogs near their home.
She twisted her ankle so badly she was in hospital for more than five weeks and had to have a titanium rod inserted in her leg from her ankle to her knee. Now aged 37, Victoria, a former chef, has faced ongoing treatment and finds it difficult to walk or stand.
Will, who also looks after his step-dad Gary, said his practical transition from happy-go-lucky teenager to young carer was automatic but it was the emotional aspect of the accident that hit him hardest.
The 18-year-old said: “The trauma of seeing my mum so badly injured was terrible. Her ankle twisted right round so that all the cartilage and tendons completely ripped. Inside it was hanging on by a thread.
“I’ve always been very close to her and I was devastated that she was so badly hurt. I couldn’t bring myself to visit her in hospital as I couldn’t bear to see her in such pain.
“I think that’s why I threw myself into practicalities. It was a huge challenge but ever since I was little people have told me I have an adult head on my shoulders. So when it came to stepping up to help, doing things like the housework, the washing, cooking, looking after my brother and sisters just seemed like the natural and most positive thing for me to do. They all took my mind off how much pain mum was in.”
Two years on and now aged 18, Will continues to shoulder the burden of helping look after his mum and his three siblings, as his mother is still in constant pain and has difficulty walking or bearing any weight on her leg. She has had two further operations since the original rod was put in.
Jane Berry, BCUHB carers measure project manager, who organised the day, said the feedback from Will and other young carers was invaluable.
She said: “As a health board we are always looking at how we can better improve the lives of young carers, but it is only by talking to them directly, listening to their individual experiences, that we can get a real sense of how we can better help them long term.
“That’s why we organised this day. We made sure the informal programme was fun for all young people there. But as well as leisure activities, we included more serious sessions to encourage young carers to open up to us.
“The sessions give them an opportunity to tell us about problems they’ve experienced, who they mostly turn to for help, and what sort of reactions they get from their GP services, for instance, and from school nurses, or social services.
“Their views and comments are key to helping us put together a strategy for the future. All the feedback will be channelled through to services on the frontline to help us improve facilities where we can and also plug any gaps in the current level of provision for young carers.”
Will attended the day with his brother, Brandon, who is now 17. He believes such events are essential for giving young carers a voice.
He said: “It is important that we are able to relate our experiences first hand to authorities in a position to help us. In some ways I was lucky as I was an older teenager but many carers are much younger than myself. Some are only children, with no brothers or sisters to help them so for them being a young carer can feel especially isolating.
“While I have helped look after my sisters, Evie, who is now 16 and Izzy, 11, and my brother, it has been important for me to realise that they are young carers too as they have been helping me with the household chores and looking after mum.
“There’s a little bit of a hierarchy going on in our house these days. My mum and step-dad tell us what needs doing and we share the tasks around. Mum used to be a professional chef so she’s used to hard work. She gets exasperated sometimes that she can’t do more, but she still cannot physically stand for long at all. It’s been a very difficult few years for her. But I know she is always there if I don’t know something like which programme to put on the washing machine. Other young carers are not so lucky.”
Will also helps care for his step-dad who suffers Asperger’s syndrome.
He said: “One of the main tasks is keeping track of the medications they both need to take. I have to make sure mum doesn’t forget about her painkillers and that my step dad has his prescriptions OK. Other chores like the washing, cleaning and walking the dogs, I share out between us.
“These days I only attend college three days a week and so I have the other days to try to catch up with anything that needs doing at home. But it was very hard when I was in school full time. I found my homework in particular was suffering. There just wasn’t time in the day to get it done so my schoolwork suffered as a result.
“Modern school syllabuses are so tightly packed that there isn’t always the flexibility built in to cater for young people in the position of young carers, and often teachers are unaware of or don’t fully understand the difficulties. That means it is so easy for us to fall behind. I think this is something which needs to be addressed.
“In the end I took the decision that it was better to leave school and go to college so I could structure my time better. It is working better for me now, though my days are still pretty filled up.”
Will studies Electrical Installation at Coleg Cambria, Bersham Road, Wrexham, and hopes for a career as an electrician, although he would also like to be an actor.
“It’s a bit of a dream of mine, but if ever I found myself in a position where full time acting was a real possibility for me I would jump at it,” he said.
He recently appeared in the production of Her Benny at Rhyl Pavilion Theatre and he also auditions for roles in local theatre shows when he has the time.
He said: “One of the things I really loved about the Young Carers Day was that I got the chance to try riding a uni-cycle, as among the various activities laid on for us was a circus skills session. I saw the uni-cycle and I just couldn’t resist. I was on it for hours, on and off, throughout the day, trying to perfect my technique, but it’s harder than it looks. I don’t think I’ll be in a professional circus any time soon!”
The day also included arts workshops, cake decorating and sessions on confidence building. It culminated with a half hour performance by local rock band Contagious, who received rapturous applause from the young audience.
Young carers attended from all six counties across North Wales – Wrexham, Flintshire, Denbighshire, Conwy, Gwynedd and Ynys Mon.
Jane said: “Throughout the day we also conducted group sessions on investing in services, information provision for young carers, empowering them and looking at how we can improve primary care.
“We talked with them about all aspects of life as a young carer, from their home and educational environments to medical services, looking at lines of communication for gaining practical help and counselling, through to ways of building in more time and facilities for young carers to socialise.
“Representatives of numerous organisations attended and supported the day, giving up their free time to do so. Among others, there were contributions from charities, school nurses, health workers and managers and the carers services from across North Wales. I want to thank everyone who supported the event. It was a great success and certainly something we hope to repeat in the future.”