On #YoungCarersAwarenessDay we caught up with Sarah, a 21 year old archaeology student who has been caring for her mother and father since she was 18.

During her first term at university, Sarah’s mother rang her to say that her father had been hurt in a car crash. Sarah immediately went home and from that day her university experience was never going to be the same.

Life for her father was also going to be very different as he was unable to return to work following four and a half months recovering in hospital. Sarah’s mother also had to leave her job and was soon signed off with depression. Sarah stepped in to help and spent most of her first year at home, supporting her parents and very nearly dropping out of university. She visited her father every day in hospital and, once he was released, Sarah drove him to medical appointments, check-ups, physio etc. To this day, Sarah helps her father to get dressed, to put his shoes on, and carry out all the usual daily tasks, that many of us take for granted our ability to do .

Sarah was keen to tell me that her mother was still a strong woman but due to the depression, Sarah has found herself also caring for her mother, mainly emotionally, to be there when her mother needs to talk, and when Sarah is at university she feels she should be at home helping her mother. For this reason, Sarah goes home most weekends. What’s extraordinary about people like Sarah, is that, if they have negative thoughts, they often won’t let you know. I wondered if Sarah resented not being at university during the weekends and being a carer for her parents. I didn’t feel it would be right on a short catch-up to ask this, as it could have opened up a whole can of worms, but Sarah answered my question, without me needing to actually ask it.

“In some respects, my Dad has looked after me all his life, so its rewarding to help him, and although tough at times, it has allowed me to be far closer to my Dad.”

Sarah also highlighted the positives in her situation, something we feel is important to address. Yes, it’s important for people who are in a difficult situation to have someone to talk to and to realise that their situation isn’t what everyone experiences but its also important that we don’t judge from the side-lines and make their situation even worse! It was so positive to hear Sarah say that she had learnt to cook, had increased her levels of patience and had learnt to control any negative immediate reactions. Who could argue that these are not important life skills, however hard it has been to learn these lessons?

“It can be challenging”, Sarah continued, “and I know I’m not doing what normal students do, so the additional responsibilities are helping me to grow up, in a good way. Although my boyfriend has been a huge emotional support to me, I’m aware that we can rarely do anything impulsive, as a family, as it takes so long to get Dad ready, everything has to be planned and days out are conducted with military precision! But, I have strengthened my relationship with my parents with a bond that will never break, and I know how to be a Mum now!”

Sarah’s degree has been impacted, she basically didn’t attend year one but now, she visits home most weekends to check on Mum and to take over looking after Dad, drive him to appointments, get him out of the house for a bit, for a couple of days to giver her a break and remains at university during the week. Again, Sarah remains positive…

“I’m more determined than ever to get that first, I’m determined to do well as I don’t want my parents to feel they are to blame for any academic failure on my part, that they’ve impacted on my studies”.

So how does Sarah cope with her own additional responsibilities and stress? She surrounds herself with friends, with people she likes, and she sings, dances and acts. She remembers when she was in the sixth form at school, her class chose Soldier On! as a charity to conduct a case study on. When she got to University, she couldn’t believe it when Diarmaid was invited by the archaeology department to tell students about the charity’s fieldwork projects. So Sarah immediately signed up to attend a project in Wales. Her parents were determined that she went.

“When I was on the project, there were many vulnerable people which made me, as a carer, feel really comfortable. It helped me, bizarrely, to be with people on an archaeology project who needed additional support, something I’d never experienced through other projects. Soldier On! were amazing too, as they recognised people’s vulnerabilities and gave them time and ‘permission’ to explore things that they felt were not normally open to them”.

Sarah is hoping to complete a Masters in events and tourism, as she would really like to work with people within the heritage sector. Her ideal job would be as a Heritage Manager and Events Co-ordinator as she wishes to combine people having fun with learning about heritage. Soldier On! will continue to work with Sarah, and hope to provide the right work experiences to support her career. We hope that we can work with more recruitment think tanks and membership organisations to stress the value of natural abilities, and experiences gained from outside the classroom, in addition to skills and ‘relevant’ work experience, especially when it comes to young people entering the world of work for the first time. As Sarah said in her closing comments, “I need more practical experience dealing with people within heritage and that’s exactly what Soldier On! has really helped me with”.

From our side, Sarah has been an absolute star and a joy to work with. She took on the responsibility of running the ‘open day’ we held in Wales, managing over 250 visitors of, all ages, and ensured activities were put on to encourage everyone to get involved with archaeology and have fun! If she ever asks us for a reference she will get a ‘first’ with distinction from us!