When we talk about caregiving we usually think of adults taking care of their elderly parents, their children, or their partners. But what if the caregiver is a child or a young adult?
According to a 2005 report by the National Alliance for Caregiving, there were 1.3 to 1.4 million caregivers between the ages of 8 and 18 in the US. These children are typically caring for a parent or grandparent and may help with dressing or feeding, bathing or using the bathroom, paying bills, and many other tasks. Young caregivers can undergo an emotional toll and physical exhaustion. Unfortunately, their emotional, social and health needs are too often overlooked.
Young caregivers may not be getting the support they need, mostly because people may not know that they are taking care of someone. These young people need to know that it is OK to let the adults in their school or community know that they are a caregiver. And schools and communities should be aware of a child’s or young adult’s personal status as a caregiver.
Young caregivers are not an American phenomenon, but global. Caring for others can be very stressful. In Western Kenya, young caregivers cope with their situations by seeking social support, finding jobs, and creating a positive identity as a caregiver. In other parts of the world, such as in Australia, young caregivers are joining online communities. Their personal and social needs are being met by simply being able to share similar situations with others like them.
Areas in which young caregivers may need support include:
- Social – feeling isolated due to lack of time or energy for friendships
- Academic – falling asleep at school, or not completing homework assignments
- Psychological – suffering from anxiety, depression, or behavioral problems
- Financial – dealing with the stress of financial constraints or having to financially support the care receiver or family
- Self-care – neglecting personal needs such as eating properly, getting adequate sleep, and receiving emotional support
Young adult caregivers (ages 18 to 25) may need support in these areas as well, but as legal adults, they have additional responsibilities that may call for support, including help obtaining medical care and making end-of-life decisions. According to a study there are an estimated 3.5 to 5.5 million young adult caregivers in the US and maybe more as this study was conducted over 10 years ago. It is important to raise awareness about this age group, as well.
Ways to Help
Schools need to be aware if a student is taking care of someone, as it can impact their academic work, behavior and school relationships. If you are a teacher or administrator, or work in other roles in a school, be cognizant of changes in behavior or if academics seem to be faltering when normally a student does well. Ask questions to find out whether there is a sickness in the family that the student wants to talk about.
Schools and other organizations that interact with children and young adults, such as churches and community centers, may wish to establish support communities or connect students to local and/or online resources. Organizations that provide resources for the young caregiver include:
- American Association of Caregiving Youth - “Caregiving Youth Project” which provides resources in schools, at home, and other activities for young caregivers
- Cancer.net - Advice for young adults caring for a parent with cancer
- Agingcaregiver.com - A care checklist for when a caregiver needs a rest
Vera Rulon, MS, RHIT, was the Director of Strategic Communications within Pfizer Medical.