Disabled Andy relies on his daughter to cook and shop, but his benefits have been slashed, and it’s pushing the two of them closer to the edge
Fourteen-year-old Rhiannon Doolan’s favourite lesson is PE, and she wants to work in sport when she’s older. But, unlike most children going back to school this week, she is already doing a full-time job: caring for her disabled dad, Andy.
In their two-bed council flat in Liverpool, Rhiannon keeps things as clean as she can: she hoovers, mops, does the dishes, and polishes. It’s been just the two of them for years – “since Rhiannon was in nappies”, Andy says – and she’s got used to doing whatever they need. Or, as Rhiannon puts it quietly to me, “things my dad would like to do but can’t.”
For Andy, 48, that’s a lot. Twenty years ago, he had a double hip replacement and caught MRSA in both legs. He’s had almost 25 operations since, and he can barely walk, then only with crutches. The crutches have brought their own problems – arthritis in his joints – and he can’t straighten his arms; he can barely move his wrists. “I’m useless without her,” he says.
Rhiannon was three years old when she started caring for her dad. “I’d help put his socks and shoes on when I was a toddler. Put cream on his legs [as medicine],” she says. By four, she was helping with shopping, pushing the trolley in the supermarket while her dad stood behind with his crutches. Outside help never came – the council went as far as putting grab-rails near the toilet, but no further. As she got bigger, and her dad’s health got worse, Rhiannon took on more.
“I do breakfasts,” she tells me. Cereal in the week and egg, sausage and bacon on toast at the weekend. For “a big meal” – Rhiannon likes mince and chips best – they cook together. “He struggles but he tries,” she says.
To help him with his medication, Rhiannon puts her dad’s prescription together and then collects it from the pharmacy down the road from the estate. Each day, she helps him get dressed and reach his feet when he washes. There’s no shower in the flat – just a bath with a shower head – and Andy stands in the bath with Rhiannon leaning over the side. “I’m proud of her,” Andy says, pausing. “But she should be out playing. She shouldn’t have to be doing any of this.”
It’s a tough way of life, and one that has just been made even harder. Since before Rhiannon was born, it’s been Andy’s two disability benefits that have paid the bills: disability living allowance (DLA), and because he’s too disabled to work, incapacity benefit (IB). But now – as both benefits are abolished nationally and tougher tests put in their place – Rhiannon has had to watch as her dad’s only support is being taken away.
The first hit came last June, when Andy – put through the “fit for work” test – was, in Rhiannon’s words, given “no points whatsoever”. He promptly had his benefit cut to £46 a week. By the time he could appeal against the decision six months later, he and Rhiannon were living off food hampers they had been given by a charity.