Caring for a loved one who is chronically ill or disabled can be personally rewarding but challenging, both physically and mentally, for anyone. Have you thought about what it’s like for a young child as young as 8 years having to care for someone? Did you know that there is a population of young children who are caring for someone with a serious medical condition or illness?
According to a report from the American Association of Caregiving Youth (AACY), there is an estimated 1.3 to 1.4 million caregivers between the ages of 8 and 18 years in the United States. Of these, 38% provide care for a grandparent and 34% provide care for a parent. The most common conditions are Alzheimer’s disease or dementia; heart, lung, or kidney disease; arthritis; and diabetes.
What’s it Like to be a Young Caregiver?
The American Association of Caregiving Youth asked 6 high-school-aged youth the question, “What is caregiving like to you?” Here’s what they said about it:
- Physically exhausting. Caregiving can take a toll on the body, especially when the young caregiver who is physically smaller than their ill loved one, is helping with bathing, dressing, getting in and out of bed, toileting, feeding, or administering medications
- Emotionally draining. Owning the responsibility of having to care for someone every day, young caregivers may wonder, why me? What if?
- Makes it hard to concentrate at school. Spending a large portion of the day in school and the evening at home caring for a loved one, many caregiving youth suffer academically. One teen stated that phone calls from family members cannot be ignored because it might be related to their loved one, and teachers don’t let you take calls at school
- Isolating. They may not know how to express their feelings or ask for help from schools, neighbors or friends
- Makes you feel obligated to help. Many caregivers feel guilty about taking time to care for themselves, and neglect their own needs
- Causes constant worry. Many young children who are the primary caregivers, fear what would happen to them should something happen to their ill loved one
Health and Well-Being of Caregiving Youth
When you are a caregiver, it may be easy to put your own needs and feelings aside. Adult caregivers, in general, have a higher risk (compared to non-caregivers) for heart disease, high blood pressure and being overweight. Many lack adequate sleep and exercise, and have poor eating habits.
Caregiving youth face the very same challenges and health risks. And developing poor health habits at such a young age can increase the likelihood of maintaining poor lifestyle habits in adulthood. Both adult and young caregivers are at risk for anxiety, depression and feelings of isolation. They are also at risk for alcohol and drug abuse.
How Can You Help Caregiving Youth?
Children are typically being taken care of by a parent or family member. For caregiving youth, the reality is that these children are handling their care responsibilities alone. Whether you are a family member, neighbor, teacher or friend, there may be a few things you can do to help out.
- Be a friend. Caregiving youth often feel isolated, as they may not have the time or energy for friendships. Share a kind word, ask them about their interests or arrange time for them to attend a school event with their friends
- Talk with them. They may not have the social skills to reach out to others and share their feelings. Many may be afraid of being taken away from their ill parent, especially if there are no other family members. Encouraging them to express their feelings to you or a school counselor can help them open up to others
- Spare them a few minutes. Even if it’s just for an hour, giving the young caregiver a short break from their caregiving responsibilities for homework or a nap can offer a much needed break
- Share the responsibility. Taking over one task, such as shopping for groceries or picking up the ill person’s medicines or driving the child around for errands (especially if the child lives in an unsafe area or needs to take public transportation to get to the pharmacy), can be of great help to the young caregiver
- Understand that they have a right to be a kid. Children need time to play and have fun. Consider making arrangements for the ill person’s care for a short time to take the child to the park or zoo
A child who cares for someone who is ill or disabled needs extra support in many ways—educationally, socially, financially and emotionally. Be sure to support them if you can.
Caroline Pak, PharmD, is the Medical Editor-in-Chief for Get Healthy, Stay Healthy at Pfizer.