Thinking of his grandmother always gives Amrish a sense of being on vacation. They often went cycling or swimming together in Friesland, where she lived. The once independent woman, who moved from Suriname to the Netherlands as a young widow with four small children, now needs help from her family seven days a week. “She’s always given me so much love”, says Amrish. “Thinking back, that feels like an enormous privilege. For a long time, I was her only grandchild. Being the centre of her affection, love and attention has made me a warmer person, I’m sure of that.”

The term ‘informal care’ is very broad.  A caregiver, for example, does groceries for an immobile neighbour, helps with household chores because someone is chronically ill or has a disability, or provides emotional support to someone who is addicted or depressed. It involves helping someone who otherwise couldn’t live at home or participate in society. Often, however, it also involves a great deal of worry about the person who needs help.

Providing both assistance and attention

At secondary school, Amrish wanted to become both a heart surgeon and an oncologist. This dream was inspired by hospital dramas like Grey’s Anatomy and his uncle’s death from colon cancer. His ambition changed in his first year of medical school. This is not for me, Amrish thought to himself.

“It turned out that I didn’t see myself working in a hospital at all, and that’s what the study is very much focused on. Through the student association IFMSA (International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations) Rotterdam, I found the motivation to continue with my studies. They combine healthcare and human rights, focusing on improving global health. We can dedicate ourselves to well-being in the Netherlands, but if children are dying from diseases like malaria worldwide, what are we doing? Maybe I’ll become a tropical doctor.”

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Informal caregiver

In those days, Amrish was not yet a caregiver. His grandmother did move from Leeuwarden to Barendrecht to be closer to her family. After his year of board membership and in the first year of the pandemic, Amrish started a second bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies at the University of Amsterdam. His mother is Hindu, his father Christian, but Amrish was not raised religiously. His parents wanted him to make his own choices in that regard. He loved the programme because ‘it has a bit of everything’ – history, philosophy, sociology. During this time, his grandmother’s condition deteriorated rapidly. Amrish’s uncle lives with her five days a week, his mother covers the other two days. Amrish mainly visits to ‘let grandma be a grandmother again’.

Studying in Amsterdam began online during the pandemic, which gave him time to visit his grandmother. They would go outside together – his 72-year-old grandmother now in a wheelchair – have a drink together, or just sit on the couch together. “We call her our ‘smiley face’ because she’s always smiling. Her particular form of dementia causes her emotions to fluctuate quickly, but she experiences everything more intensely.” Speaking is difficult for her, but Amrish still sees his grandmother. “Otherwise, it might start feeling like an obligation. In return for my help, I’m getting love from my grandmother, not from a woman I don’t recognise.”

Amrish en zijn oma in de serie Zie je Mij van Vera Duivenvoorden
The family affectionately calls Amrish’s grandmother ‘smiley face’. This picture is part of the travelling photo exhibition Do you see me? Photographer Vera Duivenvoorden has been following six young informal caregivers for this project, including Amrish from Rotterdam. Image credit: Vera Duivenwoorden

At the moment, Amrish is able to combine caring for his grandmother with finishing his second bachelor’s degree quite well. But that does not mean it’s not stressful. “It’s so intense to care for someone like this. You develop such an intimate bond with them. And she has become so much more vulnerable so, of course, I worry about her too.”

Not only does his grandmother’s health cause internal conflict, but the name associated with his position also puts Amrish under a fair bit of stress. “I don’t like the term ‘caregiver’. It only adds to the pressure, and my mother and uncle do much more. I know that I am one too, but it makes me feel like I need to do more.” He never saw himself as a caregiver until a few months ago when he participated in the photo project ‘Do You See Me’ by photographer Vera Duivenvoorden.

Lessons and gratitude

Caring for his grandmother gives Amrish insight into his own profession and ambitions. “I want to be a doctor who cares about his patients, without losing sight of their dignity and humanity.” He already applies this in his job at the GP’s office, where he answers the phone. “There, I try to be considerate and genuinely listen to the stories. When someone says, ‘thank you for listening’, that really touches me.”

Gratitude is a beautiful thing, and while it is not the reason that Amrish is a caregiver, he feels his grandmother’s gratitude deeply. “A few words or a look can be both heart-wrenching and heartwarming. I know how grateful she is. She no longer likes to go outside, especially not in crowds. But recently, we went out to dinner with the family, at De Chinese Boot next to the Euromast, and she wanted to come along too. You could see her beaming. That evening, I helped her to the restroom. I was pushing her wheelchair when she pulled my sleeve until my face was next to hers. ‘Thank you’, she said, and she pulled me in close and gave me a hug.”

Are you an informal caregiver and would you like to share your story? Please email [email protected]. I would love to hear from you.

Do you recognise Amrish from somewhere? Then you may have seen his photos hanging in Erasmus MC’s Education Centre. The still travelling photo exhibition Do you see me? by photographer Vera Duivenvoorden was there earlier this year. Vera followed six young people for the series, asking ‘what is it like to grow up as a young carer?’ The young people give accompanying guest lectures at schools and educational institutions; at Erasmus MC, for instance, Amrish spoke. The aim is to create more recognition and acknowledgement for young informal carers.