Words by Nalyn Tindall
Visuals by Kinza Zafar
Trigger Warning: This story contains mention of suicide and mental distress
On the morning of New Year’s Eve 2022, Jessica Sharkey’s twin sister Brooke had gone to visit their mother in Georgetown, Ont. When she arrived, she realized her coat and medication were gone and her mother was nowhere to be found. As the girls looked back on their mother’s home security camera footage from the previous evening, they saw her being restrained and escorted out of the house by police. They later discovered their mother, who had called a suicide helpline the night before, was taken to a hospital.
Sharkey proceeded to call nine hospitals in an attempt to locate her mother before finding her at Oakville Memorial Hospital in Oakville, Ont. Despite being her emergency contact, she was not notified about her whereabouts.
The second-year professional communications student has always had an extremely close relationship with her mother, especially following her parent’s separation last summer. In the fall following the split, her mother found her health deteriorating. In addition to suffering from anxiety, Sharkey’s mother also struggles with depression, along with colitis and hyperthyroidism, which heightens the severity of her mental health issues.
According to Mayo Clinic, hyperthyroidism is a condition that occurs due to an overactive thyroid which can result in weight loss, hand tremors and an irregular heartbeat, among other symptoms. Also according to the clinic, colitis is an inflammatory bowel disease which can cause abdominal pain, cramping, weight loss and other symptoms.
Toward the end of October, Sharkey began to provide excessive care for her mother as her mental and physical health became a daily struggle. As her primary caretaker, Sharkey must constantly check on her mother’s health, which includes ensuring she’s eating, drinking water and taking her medications. She regularly calls and visits her hometown of Georgetown almost every weekend to spend time with her.
Balancing her own life and the many elements beyond caregiving, such as school, work, a social life and maintaining her own health has become overwhelming.
“I’ve never had to take care of someone, I’ve always been taken care of,” she says.
The stress of becoming an almost full-time caretaker has weighed on Sharkey’s own mental health, pushing her to seek help. Last fall, Sharkey turned to Toronto Metropolitan University’s (TMU) Centre for Student Development and Counselling to help her through this tough time.
After being assessed by TMU’s services, she was put on a four to five month wait list. At a time when her and her mother’s entire lives were changing, the help she needed was stalled.
Due to the lack of availability for counselling at TMU, the school provided Sharkey with a list of private counsellors she could contact for help instead.
“[The process] to get the help and support that you need is almost worse than the actual ailment you have,” she says.
In an email to The Eyeopener, Student Wellbeing at TMU stated that they’ve been experiencing an increase in the number of students seeking counseling services since the COVID-19 pandemic began. They’re aware of the high wait times and are working to combat this with their current resources.
While balancing the role of being her mother’s caregiver, along with a full course load and working 24 to 32 hours a week, she was also jumping through several hoops that the school and private medical system expected her to endure in order to get help.
Her mother was hospitalized for three weeks after being admitted to the psych ward at the Oakville Trafalgar Memorial Hospital during the peak of her mental health struggles earlier this year. Sharkey regards this as the first time in four months she had peace of mind, knowing her mother was safe and that she could just visit her and “be the daughter.”
She says it was the best decision for their situation as it provided her mother with constant care from a connected team of medical professionals, giving Sharkey time to recoup knowing she no longer needed to worry. During this time, she could prioritize aspects of her life she’d previously neglected, such as her own needs and social life to regain some sense of normalcy and balance.
“That was quite nice to just have peace of mind, to know that she’s safe. If anything’s going on, a doctor will take care of it,” Sharkey says.
For the average TMU student, managing academics, work, a social life, household duties and maintaining one’s mental and physical health can be a struggle. For students who face the extra challenge of caring for an ill or aging loved one, this balancing act intensifies.
In addition to the emotional toll of having to take care of those who once cared for them, the caregiving role can affect students’ ability to balance their lives and maintain their mental health.
According to a 2008 article from the National Library of Medicine, providing care for a family member often has negative effects and can lead to chronic stress, depression or both.
These psychological effects may impact a student’s work ethic, ability to socialize or capacity to care for themselves or others. Family therapist Leslie Hackett, who is based in Winnipeg, says students tasked with caring for a loved one are typically still in a developmental stage where they form their identity and establish independence from their parents. When they assume the role of caregiver for a loved one, it disrupts this developmental flow as they are now the ones taking care of the people who used to care for them, she says. “It can cause a lot of challenges in terms of one’s sense of responsibility and obligation and bring up a lot of mixed feelings,” says Hackett.
Finding balance can be difficult due to the pressures of student life, family responsibilities and other obligations. The additional role of caretaker for a loved one can have an impact on some TMU students’ ability to not only manage their lives but causes them to feel as if they’re being forced to grow up too fast.
“I feel like I’m like 40 and I should be married with kids from the amount of things that I’ve been through,” says Sharkey.
In August of 2020, the summer before his final year of high school, George Papadopoulos’ life and family changed dramatically when the now second-year social work student’s grandfather suffered a heart attack. While he was hospitalized, Papadopoulos had moved into his grandparents’ condo in East York to care for his grandmother.
Papadopoulos has always been close with his grandmother, a Greek immigrant who he describes as “affectionate but stern.” He has several memories of his grandmother caring for him as a child and she’s been a constant maternal figure in his life. When his grandfather experienced the heart attack, the pair suddenly switched roles—now he was the caregiver in their relationship.
“From that day forward, my life and my relationship with my grandmother changed completely,” says Papadopoulos.
Unfortunately, three weeks after Papadopoulos’ grandfather’s heart attack, he passed away on Sept. 13, 2020. Papadopoulos was the person to wake his grandmother up at 4 a.m. that morning and tell her that she had to visit her husband in the hospital one last time before he passed away.
Papadopoulos had only planned to stay with his grandmother for 40 days following his grandfather’s death but because school had shifted online, it meant he had no reason to leave.
With the help of his father, the two finished the home his grandfather had been building in his family’s neighbourhood in East York and Papadopoulos and his grandmother moved in. However, on the first anniversary of his grandfather’s death, his father also suffered a heart attack but he fortunately survived. This meant his family needed to re-adjust again, causing his parents to sell their house and move in with Papadopoulos and his grandmother.
Caring for someone can take many forms and for Papadopoulos and his grandmother, emotional care was the primary need. This began with simply talking about his grandfather’s death and helping his grandmother process her new reality. The couple were neighbours when they were young and had never spent much time apart, making his death especially difficult. Papadopoulos would often simply sit with her and let her cry. As time went on, he began to help her see the good side of things, like her children and grandchildren being in her life.
Emotional support is not the only form of care he provides; he’s helped dye her hair and keeps her active, taking her for walks or providing her with tasks and hobbies to fill her days. At the end of every night, he makes sure she’s gone to bed safely and turns off and puts away her iPad, which she often falls asleep watching.
According to a 2021 article from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, it’s common for adolescent and young caregivers to experience both positive and negative consequences as a result of their caregiving responsibilities. Some of the negative outcomes can include mental health issues, stress and social isolation from peers. However, on the positive side, they may also develop resilience, maturity, empathy and an enhanced self-image.
Papadopoulos says he enjoys caring for his grandmother and loves her more than words describe. Caring for her is second nature; he feels the need to reciprocate what she’s done for him his entire life. Yet, balancing the rest of his life with the time he spends caring for his grandmother quickly became an issue. “Life throws things your way and you just have to navigate it to the best of your abilities,” he says.
The month following his grandfather’s death was the most challenging period for him. He was very focused on how his grandmother was doing, leading him to cut off the social elements of life, making him feel lonely and isolated. His grandmother was his top priority, followed by school, causing him to sacrifice time for himself and his friends. He was also sacrificing self-care but realized this and soon began going to the gym more often and eating healthier. He says he wasn’t seriously neglecting his needs but pushing himself to his limits, especially mentally.
One element Papadopoulos has found particularly difficult to balance is his full course load but he’s been learning to be more realistic with his priorities.
“Being organized is your biggest tool but then again, not everything happens the way you want it to.”
He now sets weekly and daily goals to help him stay on track and is making time for his social life and his own needs, treating them as tasks, despite this being difficult at times.
Hackett recommends that students caring for loved ones prioritize their free time, being mindful of if they’re using it to rest and recharge. “When we are consistently stuck in a dynamic where someone else’s needs are kind of overwhelming that can be very, psychologically and emotionally taxing in the short and the long term,” she says.
A pattern of putting a loved one’s needs before our own can form. This feeling of obligation throws off any balance one’s life may have and emotional depletion can make other tasks seem more difficult or exhausting, Hackett explains.
While balance was more difficult initially, it’s a recurring hardship. Between caring for his grandma, attending classes, going to the gym, going out with friends and being a part of his church and community, Papadopoulos finds himself living multiple different lives. The transition between these different identities and social settings is what’s most difficult for him now.
With little time to switch from the role of grandson to caregiver, the entire experience has forced him to grow up faster than he anticipated. He says he feels like he went from age 17 to 40 overnight and is now an old soul due to the experience.
“I feel like I lost my youthfulness,” says Papadopoulos.
Caring for his grandmother has also allowed Papadopoulos to gain a new understanding of himself. He’s become a more confident person and no longer doubts his abilities. Astonished by how strong he was not only for himself but for his family, he said, “you don’t realize how much potential you have, like how much strength you have until you’re put in a situation like that, where that’s the only thing you can be.”
In terms of support, Papadopoulos continues to turn to his tight-knit family. Their dynamics and relationships have changed, yet they’re more supportive than ever.
At school, he’s been able to access the Academic Accommodation Support Office to assist in balancing his studies. When visiting Florida with his grandmother to repair her flooded vacation home, he was able to get in-person classes accommodated to an online format.
Sharkey has also utilized these services, saying professors are usually very understanding and found utilizing academic accommodation a much easier process than getting counselling support.
Papadopoulos tends not to turn to his friends for support as they usually don’t understand his relationship with his grandmother, questioning why they’re so close and why he has put his life aside to care for her at times.
Misconceptions surrounding his situation are not unusual, as many people, including extended family members, view his situation in a pitiful light. While he appreciates their concern, he’s assured them he wouldn’t be caring for his grandmother if he didn’t love her and doesn’t need any pity.
Since the beginning of their time together, their dynamic has continued to change; his grandmother has adjusted but is still not back to her old ways. Papadopoulos still helps to dye her hair, goes out to the store with her and talks to her every morning over tea and each night when they watch game shows before bed. He describes himself as “her partner in crime.” He also says his caretaking responsibilities have become much less demanding, “I was her crutch but now I’m just walking beside her.”
His family jokes that when he gets married, his grandmother will come with him and he admits that might just be the case, saying the only thing that will part them is death.
Sharkey’s weekly schedule these days is intense. After she attends classes Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, she heads to Bulk Barn where she often works from 12 to 9 p.m. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, her days are filled with classes and are usually accompanied by three-hour check-in calls with her mother when she has a break. She then heads home to Georgetown, Ont. on Saturday evenings and comes home Monday morning to make it to class on time. This schedule is similar to last semester when she worked four shifts a week at the height of her mother’s mental health crisis.
During that time, her mother was her top priority but Sharkey is now trying her best to care for herself. Throughout the caretaking process, she experienced a lack of sleep and noticed how her mental health affected her physical health, leading to exhaustion and burnout. She says she’s often put her happiness on the back burner as she doesn’t want to make others deal with her problems.
Her social life is another factor which is often neglected. Sharkey says she’s had to get creative when socializing due to a lack of time and energy. Her primary mode of socialization is simply the time she’s at home, as she can hang out with her roommates, who she considers close friends. Her long-distance relationship with her boyfriend has also worked out for the best, as they can be more flexible over the phone and don’t have to designate time to spend with one another in person. These people serve as a support network for Sharkey, who she says have all helped tremendously.
Caring for a parent can cause challenges with one’s sense of responsibility and obligation and create mixed feelings varying from disappointment, anger, fear, anxiety, confusion and loneliness, says Hackett. As adults, we still seek guidance and support from our parents and it’s difficult when that’s taken away; it’s also disappointing when they are no longer present in our lives.
One of the challenges Sharkey faces is the sudden shift in the dynamic of her relationship with her mother. She’s no longer able to confide in her mother or share her own stress and problems of student life, as they’re not a priority. Receiving low grades on assignments she was proud of is something Sharkey would normally talk to her mom about but she feels it’s not important these days.
While her mother’s health is improving, it’s thanks to the high dose of medication she takes for both her physical and mental conditions. Sharkey says it’s nice to go home and see her in a better state but it’s difficult to accept that she is only doing better because of the medication she’s taking and not improving on her own. Sharkey still calls multiple times a day to ensure she’s taking care of herself.
Ultimately she says this entire experience has forced her to grow up too fast. Not only has she had to care for someone but she’s also had to learn the intricacies of both the legal and medical systems while maintaining two households and trying to plan for her own future.
Sharkey says there were often times where she began to lose hope or felt that her situation wouldn’t improve. But with perseverance, she’s seeing change on the horizon.
“Even though you’ve got to fight to get the help that you know that you need or that the person that you care about needs, it’s worth it.”