The Hidden Cost of Care

There has been considerable interest in the press and the media recently about social care for older adults. Because we have an ageing population, understandably attention is being given as to how we are going to pay for such provision and a debate is going on about what the social care landscape should look like. Within the discussions about future direction, the Government is placing greater emphasis on personalisation and a desire to give individuals greater say over what and how services are delivered.

In thinking about adult care we can see that it perhaps links to the natural cycle of life, whereby we are born, experience childhood, move through adulthood and onward to our final resting place. This transitional view of development assumes that childhood is a natural first phase of life, forgetting that childhood as a concept is a social construct. Philip Aries in his seminal book Centuries of Childhood, published in 1962, for instance, argued that childhood was very much a modern phenomenon.

Idyllic image and raw reality

Childhood is so often presented as an idyllic period of life – the age of innocence when we should not have to worry about the cares of the world. We know, however, that this idyllic view of life for many children is not their lived reality. Increasingly, young people are suffering from anxiety, stress and in some cases deep-seated mental health problems. This is not to suggest that every child is suicidal; far from it. It is to acknowledge that children do not exist in a vacuum; they experience the pressures of life and thankfully in the majority of cases, due to their own resilience and good parenting, grow into adults well able to cope with the vicissitudes of life.

Although the debate about adult care is out in the open, the hidden area of care that rarely gets a mention is that of young carers. This is an issue that is hidden from our gaze, and we rarely talk about it, in large part because it is unexpected. We anticipate that despite advances in health care, as we grow old many of us will need good health and social care. In the case of children, however, we do not expect our young people to be caring for other family members, and yet we know that considerable numbers are undertaking this work. Barnardo’s, for instance, estimate that the numbers of young carers in the United Kingdom to be in the region of 175,000 .

The work that young carers do is often very hard and deeply affects the young people in many different ways. The research into young carers, for instance, highlights the fact that many are very reluctant for professionals to become involved in their families. As a result they are reluctant themselves to engage with professionals and to become participants and ‘active social agents’ as was envisaged by both Every Child Matters and the Children Act 2004 . This unwillingness to engage may also compound existing feelings of isolation.

When we think about the issue of care, we so often focus on the physical aspects of care. However, the physical aspects are only one factor and account must be taken of the psychological, social and emotional aspects – a holistic view is always needed. In addition it is also important to recognise that many young carers are looking after adults with severe mental health problems.

The impact on the child

The isolation of mental health and the complexities of the human mind would be daunting for anyone, particularly so for a young child. The latter may make a rational decision to remain at home for fear that a loved one may commit suicide, but this decision may in turn be interpreted at school as signs of truancy. The school may understandably only see the absence and not be able to grasp the inner pain of the young person. As Aldridge and Sharpe (2007) state, “What is required is a deeper understanding of, and recognition for, the contributions children make to caring when parents have serious mental health problems” .


Philip Aries, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1962)


Barnardo’s (2006) Hidden lives – unidentified young carers in the UK, Barnardo’s and Yougov.


Dr. Jo Aldridge and Dr. Darren Sharpe (2007) “Pictures of Young Caring” – page 4 (accessed 20/1/2008)


Dr. Jo Aldridge and Dr. Darren Sharpe (2007) “Pictures of Young Caring” – page17 (accessed 20/1/2008)

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