As you know, many of our staff here at LiveBetter provide care and support to vulnerable members of our communities each and every day. But did you know that some are also unsung heroes who, when not at work, can be found providing care and support to friends or family members who have a disability, a chronic illness, mental health issues or who are frail due to age?
They are carers, and to mark Carers Week 2023, we caught up with Carer Gateway Peer Support Partner, and carer, Angela O’Brien.
A bit of background…
Angela is married with three grown children, and lives with her husband, David, and middle daughter, Eliza, in the inland Riverina city of Wagga Wagga.
Originally from Victoria’s Lakes Entrance, Angela grew up in a large Italian family and has three sisters and 29 first cousins, who all grew up in the same small town and attended the same small school.
“If they weren’t my cousins, they were cousins of cousins.” She laughs. “ It was a great place to grow up. The beach! The big Italian family. Christmases were big. Birthdays were big. It was just lovely!
It was a really simple life though. It was a good life, you know, simple and good.”
Angela’s love of children meant that upon leaving school, her decision to enrol in Early Childhood Studies seemed a no-brainer. But although she completed her studies, she never actually used the qualification. This is because after meeting and marrying her husband, David, they wasted no time in starting a family.
“It was going to be pretty tricky to do that type of work while raising a family, so instead, my husband went and bought his first truck, and we started our family business. We now have a fleet of trucks and offices in Wagga Wagga and the Mornington Peninsula.”
For many years Angela worked in the family business, coordinating deliveries and furniture removals…and raising her three children.
The catalyst for change came in 2016 when the family moved to Wagga Wagga. Her son Josh was 15, and unhappy at school.
“ He actually felt really isolated, so I pulled him out. I didn’t know quite what to do with him, so I spoke to the local TAFE about finishing Years 11 and 12. Josh liked the idea of being treated as an adult at school and he was keen to go. He said to me ‘ I’ll go if you go, mum. I know you’ve wanted to study Community Services forever. If you go, I’ll go.’”.
Angela and her son enrolled at TAFE on the same day. He went on to finish Year 12, while she qualified with a Diploma of Community Services.
The Caring journey
While Angela and her family were busy getting on with their lives, another story was slowly unfolding. This story now runs parallel to their lives, touching on all that they do.
“ My husband was found to have a P53 genetic mutation called Li Fraumeni Syndrome. It’s a rare genetic mutation, and people who are affected by it have no resistance to cancer genes.”
David’s mother had passed away from cancer when he was ten. The following year his brother, who also had cancer, passed away. As much as this was heartbreaking, it was the 1980’s and genetic testing was yet to be developed. Life went on.
It was not until Angela and David had their second daughter, Eliza, that they began to realise there might be a problem – a serious problem.
“ It was when Eliza was about eight months old that I knew something wasn’t quite right. I took her to the doctor and within 24 hours, we were at the Royal Children’s Hospital. We spent nearly two months there. Eliza was diagnosed with an Adrenal Carcinoma – Cancer of the Adrenal Gland. That was when they decided to do some genetic tests on the whole family….and that is when they found this genetic mutation.”
Angela’s husband and all three of her children have the P53 mutation. Over the years, they have each fought an ongoing battle with cancer. Her husband is in the advanced stages and is now deemed incurable.
“He just pushes on through. He still drives the truck today. He gets on with it.”
Right now Angela has all four family members receiving treatment for cancer.
But it is not what defines them.
“I have found the job for you!”
These were the prophetic words of her middle daughter, Eliza.
“The ad was for a Carer Gateway Peer Support Worker. It was me to a tee! Just applying was a really big learning curve. That I actually got a response was an absolute shock! But LiveBetter gave me a go, and I’ll be forever grateful for that!”
Angela loves her work.
“I needed to be away from the family business. You can’t live with somebody, be married to them, work with them, and care for them. You need something else. Just for your own sake. Everybody needs their own thing.”
A major component of Angela’s role is to facilitate Peer Support Groups for carers. These carers can be in a dark place, and the work can be confronting, but Angela does not shy away.
“I’ve learned a lot since I’ve started in the Carer Gateway. Having boundaries was definitely a problem. I was making myself available 3000% of the time which is just not sustainable. But I guess you learn as you go.”
What Angela really loves is the connection she makes with carers. Seeing the difference in people as they begin to relax and feel supported. Watching friendships blossom within the groups she facilitates.
“I love what the Carer Gateway offers!”
“Whether it’s education, whether it’s connection, whether it’s going to a morning tea or a carer support group. I believe this program makes a huge difference. I really do.”
“Working in a great team, connecting with carers, connecting carers with carers.”
“Putting boundaries in place and knowing when you can’t help anymore.”
Tip for managing work-life balance
“Leave work at work, which sometimes I’m not very good at, but I am getting better.”
What keeps you getting up and doing it all over again?
“Making a difference. Helping carers to live the best life that they can in the situation that they’re in.”
Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
“Still here, hopefully.”
One piece of advice you could give to others who are starting out in the Community Sector
“You can’t save everyone. Make time for yourself. You need to have a work-life balance and know where the boundaries are. Don’t let yourself get burnt out. Pace yourself and make sure you’re OK.”