A 21-year-old woman from Vermilion Bay, Ont., says the challenges of providing care to another family member seem to go un-noticed in northern Ontario.
Alissa Van Wynen is speaking out about the needs of young caregivers, as part of the Young Carers Forum, organized this week by The Change Foundation.
The group is an Ontario health think-tank, which says as many as one-third of people between the ages of 15 to 24 in the province are acting as caregivers.
"We're invisible," says Alissa Van Wynen who has been helping her mother care for her older sister Tiffany Eckley, since she was about eight years old.
Eckley was just 17-years-old when she suffered a traumatic brain injury in a horrific car accident, said Van Wynen, explaining that her sister is now partially paralyzed, has problems speaking and eating, and is still learning to walk again.
Van Wynen prepares meals, administers medication, helps with bathing and dressing, and offers "companionship, just being there with her and transportation, I take her everywhere with me when I'm home."
"Even when you're away you still think about your loved one, going through such a hard time," she said.
"My sister, she lost out on a lot of stuff, so there's that huge guilt factor too, because I am younger than her, I'm getting all these opportunities and stuff that she didn't have the chance to experience."
Caring for her sister has had a "huge impact on my relationships and socialization" said Van Wynen, who explained she is in a rush to finish her studies in social sciences at Brock University in St. Catharines and find a job because "when the time comes that my parents can't care for her anymore, my mom told me that will be my responsibility."
In fact, Van Wynen would like to help her parents and sister move to southern Ontario where they would all have better access to supports and resources.
'Huge impact on us too'
"I grew up in the north, where there is little to no support for young carers or even their parents, hence why I'm a young carer."
Van Wynen admires both her parents and looks up to them for the dedication and devotion they've shown since the accident.
She said her mom and dad "don't get much time for themselves because they always have Tiffany with them which is another reason for my help when I return home for breaks is to give them some alone time together."
Having the chance to share her story has been crucial to Van Wynen, who says she would like the challenges of young caregivers to be more widely recognized and to have "our voices heard and people to realize it's had a huge impact on us too."
You can hear more from Alissa Van Wynen on the CBC Radio One program, Up North, here.