Kids as caregivers

1.4 million youth are providing hands-on care for a family member. Are we expecting too much from these young caregivers?

October 18, 2018 - Author: Shannon Lindquist, Michigan State University Extension

Son hugging father from behind.

Research conducted by the National Alliance for Caregiving estimates over 1.4 million youth ages 8 – 18 are taking care of ill, injured, elderly or disabled family members. They are taking care of parents, grandparents and siblings as well as dealing with the most prevalent conditions: Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, heart, lung or kidney diseases, arthritis and diabetes.

What kind of care are they providing?

Kids are not just performing day-to-day household chores such as laundry, dishes, vacuuming and fixing simple meals, they are handing out medications, bathing, dressing, toileting and feeding family members. Some are even responsible for communicating with health care providers.

While it may seem inappropriate for kids to take on caregiving duties, changes in family structures, such as kids being raised in single parent homes or by their grandparents, increase the number of older people and multi-generations in households. Healthcare delivery has also changed so that home visits have decreased and an increase of care is becoming the responsibility of families instead of hospitals and doctor offices.

Why are kids in the role of caregiver?

Not everyone agrees that a child should be in the role of a family caregiver, however, changes in family structure and how healthcare is delivered impacts children. Economic hardships also play a part in multi-generation households, with married adults returning home with children. Regarding healthcare, medical facilities are no longer providing complex care, instead, it is being done at home by family members. Adults may be identified as the primary caregiver, however due to job obligations, children end up providing care.

How do caregiving responsibilities affect these kids?

Roger Olson, a clinical child psychologist at St. Luke’s Children’s Center for Neurobehavioral Medicine in Boise, Idaho, states that low level caregiving (helping with chores, running errands or spending time together) helps youth with character development. This type of caregiving fosters kindness, generosity, compassion and nurturance.  The other, more personal side to caregiving including feeding, bathing or changing adult diapers, can take a toll and may be traumatizing to a child. Children have the coping skills of children and are not equipped to handle these stressful roles.  

What can we do to help youth caregivers?

We can help young caregivers by knowing behaviors that may be signals of concern:

  • School: tardiness, missed days, incomplete assignments, lower participation in after-school programming, poor behavior and dropping-out
  • Emotionally: anxiety, depression, grief and feelings of being overwhelmed
  • Socially: difficulties getting along with others, loss of social activities and friendships
  • Physically: exhausted, lethargic and lack of interest in appearance

We can also bring awareness to our communities that kids are in this role. We can help by providing resource information for kids in our local schools, religious organizations and public libraries. Starting a local coalition can bring more attention and support for these families. Every caregiver needs and deserves support.

For information on youth caregivers visit the American Association of Caregiving Youth (AACY) at www.aacy.org or call 800-508-9618 or 561-391-7401 for direct assistance. The AACY website has suggestions and links that can help families, professionals and school-based staff to assist caregiving kids. Visit the Michigan State University Extension website for additional information related to caregiving.

Tags: caregiving, chronic disease, family, food & health, healthy relationships, managing relationships, msu extension


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