SCHOOLGIRL Rose Bielby sings sweetly to her two-year-old sister as she runs her a bath, washes her then gently brushes her baby teeth.
The 13-year-old, from Hull, is exhausted after a long day at school, yet she knows she must care for little Hermione, who has Down's syndrome.
At the other end of the country, another youngster, eight-year-old Max Spear, cradles his disabled brother Archie in a bid to calm him down.
He's been slapped and bitten in the past by five-year-old Archie – who has the brain capacity of a six-month-old baby – yet that doesn't put him off.
"I help keep him calm and stop him hurting himself," says fiercely protective Max, from East Sussex. "I stop him feeling sad and upset."
800k child carers as young as 5
Rose and Max are just two of an estimated 800,000 children – some, as young as five – helping to care for siblings and other relatives across the UK.
Their work, though rewarding, can be extremely difficult and lonely.
While their pals spend their spare time socialising, watching telly or playing video games, 'invisible' young carers carry astonishing burdens at home.
Covid's devastating toll
For some, daily life involves cleaning and cooking dinner for their families. Others help their struggling parents with medication and household bills.
And the Covid pandemic has only made these youngsters' lives more challenging: recent research by the Carers Trust found 69 per cent of young carers, aged 12 to 17, are feeling less connected to others since the crisis.
Forty per cent say their mental health is worse. And some youngsters have yet to go back to school, amid fears they could bring the virus home.
It doesn't help that many respite services – which normally give young and adult carers a much-needed break by offering professional care and trips away for disabled people – have been cancelled during the pandemic.
It's why, as part of The Sun's Christmas Together campaign to help combat loneliness, we are shining a light on the nation's heroic young carers.
The Sun’s Christmas Together campaign
THIS Christmas we are teaming up with the Together Campaign, a coalition of community groups and organisations, and Royal Voluntary Service to combat loneliness.
And we want to recruit an army of volunteers to support those feeling cut off, anxious and isolated, this Christmas.
Could YOU reach out to someone who might be struggling and alone?
It might be someone you know in your own life or community who needs support.
Or we can connect you with someone in need through the NHS Volunteer responder programme run by the NHS, Royal Voluntary Service and the GoodSAM app.
Could you give up half an hour to make a call and chat with someone feeling isolated? Or could you volunteer to deliver essential shopping or festive treats?
Go to nhsvolunteerresponders.org.uk/christmastogether to sign up as a volunteer.
You will then receive an email taking you through the sign up process and be asked to download the responder app which will match you to those in need in your area.
Don’t worry if you don’t get a job straight away, because jobs are matched according to the need local to you. Being ready to help is what really matters.
“Throughout the pandemic, our frontline workers have seen young carers become even more isolated as they’ve spent long periods out of school, unable to socialise with friends, and have gone without breaks for months at a time," says Carol Iddon, managing director of children’s services at UK charity Action for Children.
“These children are often desperate for a break from their duties and to have a bit of fun – that’s why respite services are such a lifeline."
'I'm terrified I could bring the virus home'
For Rose, the pandemic has certainly had an isolating impact.
"I have felt singled out and different to other people my age," she says.
"I'm really scared of Hermione catching Covid as she can get a lot of colds and respiratory infections in winter anyway, and it takes her longer to recover. I'm frightened I could bring it home to her from school."
Rose – who has missed out on friends' small birthday gatherings to protect Hermione – has been caring for her little sister since her birth in 2018.
Because Hermione doesn't understand certain dangers, and is wobbly on her feet, the teen watches her whenever their parents are busy.
"I watch her and play games with her while mum and [my stepdad] Danny get jobs done in the house, or cook tea," says Rose.
"Sometimes I run her baths and bathe her, and help her brush her teeth. Sometimes she'll only let me brush them.
I distract her with singing and funny faces while she has her hair brushed or dried because she doesn't like the feeling of it
"I distract her with singing and funny faces while she has her hair brushed or dried because she doesn't like the feeling of a brush on her hair.
"She also often comes to me for a cuddle if she hurts herself."
She adds: "When I'm tired, especially after school, I don't always feel like playing or watching Hermione, but I still have to."
Rose – who found it hard to juggle looking after Hermione with home-learning during the schools lockdown – has also learned Makaton sign language to help Hermione communicate her needs more easily.
"Sometimes caring for Hermione can be difficult because she has a speech delay and it can be hard to find out what she needs," she says. "It can be upsetting because she will cry or shout if she can't be understood."
A smile filled with joy
But even on the hardest days, when Rose is exhausted and worrying about her schoolwork or Covid, just a smile from Hermione can cheer her up.
"She pulls the funniest faces and she makes my day every day," she says.
For Rose's mum Helen Topham, 39, the signs that her eldest daughter would be a caring big sister were there even before Hermione's birth.
She recalls telling Rose, then still in primary school, there was a high chance her unborn baby sister would have Down's syndrome.
"She said, but we’ll love her anyway, won’t we mum?’" says Helen. “I thought then, Rose is somebody special who will be a supportive big sister."
Love 'on a different dimension'
Today, the mum-of-two, who works part time as a teaching assistant, admits she and husband Danny, 32, sometimes rely on Rose as a "third parent".
“She does a lot of the practical stuff that we do," says Helen.
"We’re just in awe of her really."
Of her daughters' special relationship, she adds: "It’s like love on a different dimension."
Rose and her family, from the village of Willerby, have been helped by the charity Sibs, which supports those growing up with disabled siblings.
According to a survey by the organisation, 50 per cent of children with a disabled brother or sister are providing more care during the pandemic.
One in three youngsters were found to be feeling isolated, while 36 per cent of parents felt they were giving their carer children less time and attention.
Sibs – which provides online resources and training – has also been a "lifeline" for Max and Archie's family in what has been a gruelling year.
Little Archie was born with Group B strep, a bacterial infection that, in his case, went undiagnosed and caused pneumonia, meningitis and sepsis.
Today, the youngster has brain damage, an immune deficiency and multiple complex needs, meaning his family had to shield over the summer.
He’s also non-verbal, doubly incontinent and can’t feed or dress himself.
"Literally for six months, we were stuck in our house – we could go to our garden and that was it," says the brothers' proud mum, Jo.
"Max's anxiety is through the roof. Archie can cry and all of a sudden he’s like, 'Do you think he’s got corona? Check his temperature'.
“He’s so petrified that if one of us gets sick… then Archie will die."
When he was younger, Max struggled to build such a close relationship with Archie.
Max is his mouthpiece, his shoulder, his brain. He's the first one going, 'is he hungry? Do you think he’s wet?'
But now, he's the first port of call for his brother, who has frequent meltdowns that can see him hurt himself and scream in Max's ear.
"Whatever Archie needs, he'll get it for him," says full-time mum Jo, who also shares two-year-old daughter Aubrey with husband Jamie, 31.
"He’s his mouthpiece, his shoulder, his brain.
"Max is the first one going, 'is he hungry? Do you think he’s wet? Maybe he wants the TV programme changing'. He is so attentive to Archie."
Because Max sleeps in the same bedroom as Archie at their Peacehaven home, he wakes up whenever there's a problem at night.
But he's also hugely supportive during the day – something that's made even more remarkable by the fact Max himself has recently been diagnosed with autism and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
'I teach him to learn & count'
"I help him with his learning and counting… help with his drinks and I'm really good with helping with his food," says Max proudly. "I help with his clothes and get his nappies for him, and basically everything."
Archie is terrified of water.
So when he has a bath, Max climbs in alongside him in a show of support.
But the big-hearted brother admits: "I find it difficult when he hurts me sometimes, like when he slapped my face and bit me on the forehead."
Like Rose and countless other young carers, Max often speaks up for his sibling – including when he catches members of the public staring.
"Max says, ‘Why do you do that? Everybody’s different, everybody's their own person, you shouldn’t do that'," says Jo, 30.
'I help mum take her medication'
For young carer Blossom, being out in public poses another worry – she fears contracting Covid could prevent her from looking after her mum.
The 13-year-old helps to care for her single mother Ashlea, 32, who suffers from fibromyalgia, an agonising condition that causes pain and fatigue.
“I make my mum a cup of tea or coffee every morning and help her take her medication," says Blossom, from North Yorkshire.
"I’ll help with the cleaning up and – if mum isn’t feeling well that day – I might have to cook dinner too."
Charities have called for greater support for young carers like Blossom, including better mental health services and funding for alternative respite options during the pandemic.
The schoolgirl, who has two younger sisters aged 10 and eight, admits: “It does tire me out and it can be difficult to get everything done, especially when I have homework to do.
"It doesn’t leave me with any time for myself. You kind of get used to it though and it just becomes part of your day. "
She adds: "I just know that I have to be there for my mum.”
Blossom is being supported by Action for Children's Young Carers service, which secured her and her sisters school places during the lockdown, providing some structure to their lives and time for Ashlea to rest.
But now, the re-opening of shops worries the youngster. "I get quite anxious when I go out in case I get sick and then can’t look after my mum," she says.
A challenging future
For young carers, it isn't just the 'present' that is challenging. While Blossom continues to support her mum amid the tiered system, many children caring for siblings face the prospect of doing so for decades to come.
Rose’s mum Helen says: "A few months ago, she had gone quite quiet for a couple of days and she just said to me, 'I know I’ll be caring for Hermione when I’m older mum'. She said I do think about it, I do worry about it.’"
She adds: "That really stayed with me – that she knows that this isn’t just having a little sister now, this is a little sister for life.”
Where to find support
A RANGE of support services are available for carers of all ages, and the people they care for.
Charity Revitalise provides short breaks and holidays (respite care) for disabled people and carers.
Carers Trust works to improve support, services and recognition for anyone living with the challenges of caring, unpaid, for a family member or friend.
Carers UK offers support to carers and connects them with each other, as well as professionals.
Sibs works to support siblings of disabled children who often carry out a lot of the care at home.
Action for Children offers practical and emotional support to young carers, and helps them get regular breaks.
But for young heroes like Rose, Max and Blossom, it's more than worth it.
"I feel so lucky to have Hermione and I wouldn't have any other sister. She has made my life better in so many different ways," says Rose.
"There are lots of challenges but I love her with all my heart and will help her in any way I can."
Do you know a local hero? Nominate them here
As part of The Sun's Christmas Together campaign we're celebrating your acts of kindness and spirit of positivity.
We're rounding up some of the most heartening and inspirational tales from around the country in our Good Deed Feed – and we want to hear from YOU.
Do you know someone who has gone above and beyond to put a smile on people's faces? Or perhaps you want to thank an unsung hero whose generosity recently brightened up your day.
We'll be featuring the most moving stories here and each week we'll select a hero to receive £100.
How to nominate: Tell us in no more than 150 words about your hero and what they've done.
You can submit through the webform at the bottom of this article or by emailing [email protected]
If nominating by email please include your name, age, location, your hero's name, plus a photo of them.
See full terms and conditions here
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