One woman’s story reveals the hidden heartbreak of caring for a loved one

An only child, Maureen Lowndes became her mother’s carer after her elderly father died. The endless duties made her bitter and suicidal, and damaged her life, she writes.

One woman’s story reveals the hidden heartbreak of caring for a loved one

An only child, Maureen Lowndes became her mother’s carer after her elderly father died. The endless duties made her bitter and suicidal, and damaged her life, she writes.

Christy Moore sings the heartbreaking song ‘Sonny’. The mother in the song begs Sonny to never leave the family home because she is alone. Sonny stays and works the land even though he is not a man yet. Over time, Sonny becomes old and lonely himself and thinks of what might have been if he had been allowed to leave.

I am a female version of Sonny.

We all know someone like the Sonny in the song, elderly bachelors and spinsters who stayed home and dedicated their lives to caring for elderly parents. Some of them married but continued to care for parents. More did not. Many of these people were the products of matched marriages. Even into the 1950s in rural Ireland, many people were matched in marriage. Many an old man was matched to a younger woman.

The marriage of an old man and a middle-aged woman often resulted in the birth of an only child who would eventually become the family carer. People were sometimes matched in marriage to join bits of land together. Or, if someone was not able to care for themselves, matching them in marriage meant they had a live-in carer in the form of a wife, or if they did have a child, that they would eventually care for them.

My late father was matched to my late mother. My father was elderly and my mother was middle-aged with many health problems. When I was very small others had to care for me, but still I had to grow up very fast. I am an only child and I helped care for my father first. He died of cancer at the age of 76 when I was in school. I then became my mother’s carer.

Parentification is the term used by experts to describe role reversal, when the child becomes the parent. Often an only child or the oldest child in a dysfunctional household will be parentified and this should never happen to a child. When I was a young, full-time carer, I soon began to see the unbearable burden I had to carry and I was very unhappy and insecure. But I was told that God would reward me and God sent me to my mother to be her carer. And I really believed all this nonsense — but I am an atheist now.

I missed a lot of school. I had a bad stammer back then and was severely bullied. Corporal punishment was brutal in schools. I hated school always.

I eventually got married but continued to be my mother’s full-time carer. When I was 46 and my mother was 88, I stopped all caring duties and finally fulfilled my dream to study for a college degree. I got my mother into care and went to college through the Trinity Access programme. I was judged very harshly by many people but they never walked in my shoes. The endless caregiving duties and housework made me bitter and suicidal. I was in a dark place mentally.

According to “Young carers are children or young people under the age of 18, who care or help to care for somebody in their family with an illness, a disability, a mental health issue or who has an alcohol or other drug problem.”

Maureen Lowndes
Maureen Lowndes

There is nothing wrong with a young person helping in a home where there is chronic illness.

But there has to be a responsible adult to make all decisions and to make sure that the child’s education is given top priority and that the child’s mental health is protected.

A child should never have to help with toileting or showering an adult. A child or teenager should never have to take full care of someone because the psychological, educational, and economic damage to the young carer can last a lifetime. Adults should not be left in a position either where the best years of his or her life is taken up with long-term caring.

My role as a carer damaged my life. And now, as a widow under the age of 66, I live on a small pension of €198.50 per week. I resent living on a low income after all the years I spent caring for my parents. My life as a long-term carer had me so brainwashed I felt that I had to care for the world. If I thought someone had problems I would automatically try to fix them. I was an automatic carer and fixer and as a result I put the welfare of others before my own welfare and was often taken advantage of.

I was one of those people that would give away the last bit of food in the house. If I saw a stranger drop something on the street I would run and pick it up for them. I would believe any kind of a sob story and I was very vulnerable. I had no regard for my own welfare. I would jump into to help anyone in any kind of trouble. It was automatic and it took years of counselling to break that habit.

Finally, at the age of 61, I broke free from this permanent carer mode. I was very timid and afraid to stand up for myself, but counselling helped me to change that and now I feel I can finally stand up for myself.

I am left with lifelong anxiety; always waiting for something to go wrong because during my childhood things always went wrong: beaten in school, bullied in school, a parent getting sick.

As a teen I worried day and night that my mother would die and I would have no money to bury her. I developed a fierce fear of cancer and, unfortunately, my poor husband died from cancer too. I still have a fear of cancer but now as I am older I fear all manner of illness: Heart attacks, strokes, brain aneurysms, and I suffer from panic attacks.

I resent the fact that I got my education too late to work and build up a pension.

I resent the fact that I never had parental guidance or protection.

I resent the years of never-ending drudgery as a carer.

I would like the State to make sure a child never has to take on an adult role and that all children get the care, guidance, protection, education, and security to which every child is entitled.

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