Going to fun parties and festivals, hanging out with friends a lot, playing a lot of sport, working part time at Kruidvat, going on regular city trips, and of course studying Psychology: that is what the life of Kyra Rozendaal (24) looked like until just over two years ago. She was nearing the end of her third year of study. “It really was a carefree life. Pretty much my biggest worry was whether I was going to pass my next exam. Luckily, my studies went very well.” In the spring of 2022, she received a call from Denmark, where her father (then 55) was on holiday. “I was told: ‘Your father is having an operation. He has a blood clot in his brain. We don’t know how things are going to turn out’.”

The term ‘informal care’ 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. It involves helping someone who otherwise would not be able to live at home or take part in society. It often goes hand in hand with worrying about the person who needs help.

Kyra went to see her father on her own. Her parents are divorced and she does not have any brothers or sisters. Once at the hospital, Kyra was deeply shocked. Her father was doing worse than she expected. He called Kyra ‘Marie’ and said it was the year 1400. “He couldn’t speak properly, he couldn’t move, he couldn’t see as well and he didn’t know how to eat with cutlery.”

Her father’s youngest sister flew over, as did Kyra’s mother. She came mainly to support her daughter. “I wasn’t doing well. I didn’t even know what a stroke was, or what rehabilitation meant. You want to keep believing it will all work out, but they couldn’t tell me that at the hospital.”

Graduating, caring and worrying

Kyra Rozendaal_mantelzorger student mei 2024_Hilde Speet
Image credit: Hilde Speet

Back in the Netherlands, a place opened up at the nearby Rijndam rehabilitation clinic. Kyra lives in Capelle aan den IJssel, as did her father at the time. Her father underwent rehab at the clinic for five days a week, while Kyra threw herself into her thesis. “I think I got an 8. Studying has always been my distraction.” In the weekends, her father came home; Kyra picked him up every week and took care of him.

This went on for three months. However, the toughest time came in the months after. As Kyra dissolved her father’s business, sold his house, delved into the rules of the Social Support Act and looked after her father, he became more and more aware of what had happened. “He was depressed. He couldn’t take care of himself. He could no longer plan, for example, so he couldn’t remember that he had to eat. For three months, he considered ending his life.”

Kyra received mental and financial support from her family, but she found herself feeling lonely. Her father was always the mainstay of the family. She would call him whenever she had to make a difficult decision about something. Her lifestyle had changed so much overnight that friends could not understand. They struggled to have sympathy for their friend who had suddenly stopped going out with them and had trouble making arrangements to meet up. “I heard they thought I was overdoing it, or that I only wanted to be with my boyfriend.” Kyra was dating Tim at the time. He provided a good shoulder to cry on. They are now living together.

Asking for help

The 2022 summer holidays were coming to an end. If Kyra wanted to start her master programme, she was going to need some help. She called her father’s friends and made a schedule of who would visit and bring food. “I had to, otherwise it would have killed me. I was taking care of everything for my father at the time. It was tough, but it gave me a lot of self-confidence. I learned that I could count on myself.”

It was a whole year before Kyra’s father’s recovery began to progress rapidly. It was no longer necessary for someone to visit every day; visits reduced to five days a week, then four. They became less frequent, until by early 2024, dropping in with food was no longer necessary.

In spite of this, Kyra knows that caring for and worrying about her father is not over yet. But now she knows how to share her story. “I didn’t know that other people my age were caring so intensively for a loved one”, Kyra remembers. “I want other young informal carers to know: you’re not the only one, even if it feels like it. Asking for help will make a big difference for you and those around you. Ask for help, even if you don’t think you deserve it.” Kyra talked to peers through You Never Care Alone. In the Living Room, a place on campus where students can relax, she was able to tell her story, and with help from her study advisor, she made arrangements for her internship and graduation. In the end, she only incurred half a year of study completion delay before graduating in March 2024.

Life lessons

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Some measure of calm has returned, giving Kyra space for her next challenge: processing what happened. “I can’t yet say exactly how that will go. I’m still in the middle of it. It’s a kind of grief, the loss of the way things were. My father will never be quite the same, and neither will I.”

Later this year, Kyra and her boyfriend are going to travel through South America together. “My father always loved travelling, he’s pleased that I’m going. What I want to do differently from him is to not work too hard. I don’t want that. It’s made me enjoy all the little things more, and enjoy life when everything’s going well for a while.”

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

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