It’s unfathomable that tailor-made solutions are possible for elite athletes, but not for informal carers, because they don’t have ‘talent status’”, wrote Tilburg law student Antje Beers. Her opinion piece resulted in a motion in the House of Representatives, with all 150 MPs voting in favour. “As far as I’m concerned, informal carers are also elite athletes, seeing how many hours a week they spend on their care tasks. The failure to offer tailor-made solutions consistently is, in my view, a major deficiency at this university.” Education plans for more support for students who are informal carers are expected in the autumn.

Informal carers relieve the already overburdened health care system. People can continue to live at home (or for longer) and less home care is needed. The benefits for people in need of care as well as society are often significant, but the downside is the stress it can cause for the informal carers themselves. They often worry more deeply about the person they are helping. For young people, it is difficult to find more time to fit in these care tasks around their studies.

One in four adolescents and young adults is an informal carer. That term is very broad. For example, an informal carer may run errands for a physically disabled neighbour, help with household chores because someone has a long-term illness or disability, or give spiritual support to someone who is addicted or depressed. All informal care involves helping someone who would otherwise be unable to live at home or take part in society. It often goes hand in hand with worrying about the person who needs help.

Balance between compulsory courses and greater flexibility

Officially, students who are informal carers do not have the flexibility of elite athletes, but sometimes they can arrange a week’s postponement for an assignment or an extra resit through the study advisors. The possibilities vary per university, faculty and programme.

Lianne van der Giessen, study advisor for the Medicine programme, offers these students the same possibilities as students who are elite athletes. She knows that not every programme is this generous, but even for Medicine there are limits: “For bachelor students, we can look at the binding study advice, submitting assignments later, things like that. For master students, the medical internships are the most difficult.” The medical internship is intensive, with students working long days. “I give them the choice: study part-time, although you’ll then need to give up some days off, or stay in the region. In the latter case, they’ll end up at hospitals in Zuid-Holland. Tailor-made solutions will always be possible, but compulsory courses remain compulsory and students still have to earn all their credits within a certain time frame.”

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Image credit: Josine Henneken

Handing over care tasks

Van der Giessen recognises the stories of stress among young informal carers. “It’s often physically and mentally demanding. Studying is already pretty tough without those additional tasks. I often ask if there are other family members, siblings, neighbours or friends who can help. Often – not always – there are, but informal carers find it difficult to hand over care tasks, especially if they started caring for the person involved at a young age. I tell them it’s okay to delegate.”

What else does the study advisor believe the Ministry needs to look at in this regard? “Financial support, as for chronically ill young people who may be eligible for study allowance. Studying longer, which can happen when you’re an informal carer, costs more money. In addition, these young people often don’t have room for a job on the side.” In Rotterdam, it is fairly easy to obtain a certificate from the municipality if you are an informal carer. That document is proof for study advisors and others that you really are providing informal care. “We really need that to help you. In some cities, this is more complicated. A student living in Tilburg was referred from pillar to post. Things should become equally easy everywhere.”

What does Erasmus University Rotterdam already offer?

University-wide, additional support measures are already in place. You can get in touch with other young informal carers through the Personal Support Hub (next to the Living Room, on the ground floor of the Langeveld building). You can also go there to talk to professionals who can help you with practicalities, e.g. with certain applications, or listen to your story for a while.

“At EUR, work has been going on for several years to improve the way students with informal (or formal) care tasks can be supported. As you’ll appreciate, this often requires a tailor-made solution”, an Erasmus University Rotterdam spokesperson explained. That tailor-made solution can involve financial support. The profiling fund offers the opportunity to support certain students financially. Informal carers are among those who qualify.

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One last tip

“You become an informal carer sooner than you think”, says Van der Giessen. In presentations at the beginning of the bachelor and master programmes, she and her colleagues always point this out. “You don’t have to tell us that you’re an informal carer, but it does make it easier for us to help you. If you wait until the end of the first year of study to tell us that you’re not going to make it due to your informal care responsibilities, that makes things a lot harder.”

In the coming weeks, young people who combine studying and informal care will be telling EM about their experiences. If you’d like to share your story, contact Tessa Hofland.

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