The care necessity of a better life

Pictured is Ruth Lawson with her Mother Lyn,who she has been looking after for 20 years
Pictured is Ruth Lawson with her Mother Lyn,who she has been looking after for 20 years
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“Bathing my mum for the first time. That was one of the hardest things...”

Ruth’s memory flips back to the day when the woman who had once tended to her every need became the child and she the parent.

Pictured is Ruth Lawson with her Mother Lyn,who she has been looking after for 20 years.

Pictured is Ruth Lawson with her Mother Lyn,who she has been looking after for 20 years.

“It was a big deal. A really difficult thing. I knew I needed to preserve an adult’s dignity at the same time as helping her to perform something so intimate,” she reflects.

She was 15 at the time - and no one knew she was her mum’s sole carer. She didn’t even know it herself.

Because so many days were filled with errands and looking after mum, Ruth never really saw the burdens being placed upon her. It didn’t dawn on her until, at 18, her mum’s occupational therapist suggested she go along to the newly launched Young Carers’ Scheme.

By that time she and mum were living in a disabled person’s bungalow on a complex for the over 55s in Gleadless – no place for a young woman.

“I remember going to the first meeting wondering what the was point and a little girl asking me: Are you one of us, or one of them, pointing at the staff. “The realisation hit me. I was like her; a young carer, someone whose childhood had been dominated by the huge responsibility of looking after someone who couldn’t look after themselves.”

The scheme gave her the outside support she had never had. Workers even proof-read dyslexic Ruth’s student essays and helped her gain the Carers’ Allowance benefit for four years – the only period in her life when she has ever been paid for all the hours she puts into looking after her mother.

It made such a difference to her life, she now works for Sheffield’s Carers’ Centre as a parent carer development worker, helping others in her situation get the support she knows they deserve.

“Carers lose their freedom,” she says. “Looking back, I can see I missed out on stuff; mainly social things after school with friends.

“I had to stay in Sheffield to study for a degree, rather than being able to head off to explore another city. I was tied; everything had to revolve around mum.

“Now I try to give other people the support they need to be able to do more with their own lives and encourage them to ask for help.

“When I was 15, mum used to suffer terrible migraines and I’d have to take days off school to be with her. Yet I never explained to my teachers the real reason. I didn’t think I needed to. I was just doing what anyone would do.”

No one noticed, she says, because young carers are invisible to all but the person they are caring for. And it becomes the norm to run the house and to live with worry.

“At school and university I always had a 20p in my pocket so I could go to a call-box and ring home to make sure she hadn’t fallen, or scalded herself making a cup of tea - the same things you’d worry about if you’d left a teenager home alone.”

The strain must have taken its toll; Ruth flunked her A-levels and had to retake them, then bailed out of her first stint at university just weeks in.

A year later, though, she renewed her determination, went back to Sheffield Hallam and graduated with a 2:2, all the while caring for Lyn. Even when she found a partner and moved to a home of her own, she maintained her role.

It was just after receiving the best news of her life - that she was expecting a baby - that she discovered her mum had life-threatening throat cancer.

Lyn had two major operations, watching her daughter’s pregnancy progress from the hospital bed she was confined to for three months. It was touch and go as to whether Lyn would survive, but the prospect of seeing the baby helped pull her through. Grandson Samuel, now three, brings daily light to her life every time he bursts into her little house in Gleadless.

Sadly, though, Ruth’s relationship with Samuel’s father broke down and she is now a sole parent and a sole carer.

She admits: “I do have a lot on my plate. I wish my mum was healthy and could look after me sometimes.

“It feels like I have to do everything for everyone.

“But she has been there for many in so many other ways. She has always been my biggest supporter. She pushed me to do well at school, insisted I learned to save for a rainy day and never live beyond my means.

“She made me the person I am today. And we are incredibly close,” says Ruth. “When I was a teenager, we were like Bonnie and Clyde, the two of us against the world.

“Now we’re like Darby and Joan,” she laughs.

“We’re joined at the hip!”