Graduate's research reveals plight of young carers
3 June 2021
Dr Lauren Donnan is on a mission. She wants the government to recognise and support the invaluable role of ‘young carers’, those who look after family members who can’t care for themselves.
Graduating with a PhD from the University of Auckland, Lauren has focused her research on this largely invisible group, who are sometimes as young as three and mostly under 18. She has already made significant progress in raising awareness of the issue, which is also a highly personal one for her.
“I cared for my own brother Andrew, nicknamed ‘Beefy’, from when I was 14 onwards, after my mum died and my dad worked as a flight attendant for Qantas, so was away every other week,” she says.
“Beefy has autism and an intellectual disability so he needed a lot of support, and I often felt like the only young person doing that sort of role.”
After featuring in a recent TVNZ Sunday programme on the issue, Lauren came to the attention of Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft, who admitted young carers hadn’t been “on his radar”, as well as Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Minister Sepuloni has already committed to improving the situation by better understanding young carers’ needs and developing support services through the Mahi Aroha – Carers’ Strategy Action Plan 2019-2023, says Lauren.
“I’m really hopeful for the future. The government is now able to move forward to fund and make policies that are based on research conducted in Aotearoa with the voices of New Zealand’s own young carers.”
According to Lauren’s research, the issue is not that the majority of these young people want to give up their role, which is often vital to the rest of the family and also something they enjoy and feel proud of.
“They love supporting their loved ones: their sick mother, sister who has a disability, elderly grandfather,” she says. “They have a strong bond with them and feel like it’s the natural thing for them to do; in many families, especially Māori and Pacific whānau/aiga, it’s very much the culturally accepted way to care.
“So this is not about taking that away. It’s more an acknowledgement that these children have responsibilities that others their age don’t have, that they're missing out on having a childhood and succeeding in their education, and that they need recognition and support.”
One of the ideas to come out of her research, and subsequent media, is establishing a young carer group to implement four key actions from the strategy: further research into NZ young carers’ experiences and needs, data gathering to establish the scope, an advisory group so young carers’ own voices inform any actions taken, and support for young carers and their family/whānau/aiga.
Lauren says this could include anything from one-on-one counselling, respite and connection via social clubs to an online networking platform and funding for advocates who work alongside carers’ teachers to support their achievement at school.
I wouldn’t take back a second of my time with him. But I do wish that I had known I wasn’t alone, and that my family had support
Now married with three young children, Lauren still has a strong relationship with her brother, who is still hugely important in her life.
“My caring relationship with Beefy has had a profoundly positive effect on the person I am today, and has shaped my career,” she says
“I wouldn’t take back a second of my time with him. But I do wish I had known I wasn’t alone, and that my family had support. I'm passionate about young carers receiving support and guidance, so that care doesn’t come at the cost of their education, childhood, social life, or mental wellbeing.”
Lauren completed her PhD in the Faculty of Education and Social Work under the supervision of Professors Toni Bruce and Janet Gaffney.
Julianne Evans | Media adviser
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