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Youth Caregivers: A Growing Population

Family Caregiver Alliance

Earlier this year, Mark’s world was turned upside down when his mother’s Multiple Sclerosis took a turn for the worst, leaving her in a wheelchair and unable to care for herself as tremors and weakness made it difficult to even prepare her own breakfast.  Since Mark’s mother and father have been divorced since he was a toddler, the role of being his mother’s primary caregiver has fallen to him at just 16 years of age. Now, with so much concern for his mom’s wellbeing, Mark has trouble focusing at school and the former straight-A student is trying to figure out how to make up for the days of school he misses when his mom is just too ill to leave alone.

Youth Caregivers Face A Unique Situation

While the vast majority of family caregivers struggle to strike a balance between different areas of their lives, such as work and a family of their own, young caregivers like Mark are faced with the unique problem of caring for a loved one while they still need care themselves. And while adult caregivers may have the option of taking leave from work, or reducing work hours, students are forced to find ways to continue their studies while taking on duties ranging from increased household chores to helping manage a parents’ medication schedule.  All this while worrying that they may lose one of the people that they love most. The stress of balancing these issues can be overwhelming for a mature adult; let alone a child or teenager who is still developing the management of their emotions, fear and stress. In fact, a 2006 study conducted for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation by Civic Enterpises found that a startling 22% of high school dropouts leave school to care for a family member.

Providing Support for Youth Caregivers

According to a 2005 report by the National Alliance for Caregiving, there are at least 1.3 million caregiving youth between the ages of 8 and 18 in the United States. However, many researchers believe that this number is low, as some families are reluctant to share their caregiving situation. Many ill, disabled or aging parents and their children are embarrassed by their need for assistance and are unwilling to volunteer information on their household needs with school or social services officials. This means that youth caregivers may be struggling in school or at home and potential resources—like teachers or special support programs—are unable to offer assistance that may help relieve some of the stress. Caring for an ill or disabled parent or loved one is frightening at any age, and adult support systems in a youth caregiver’s life are likely to be understanding of this. While some schools offer innovative support programs especially for young caregivers, even those without programs in place may be able to offer support for youth caregivers that help to manage stress and keep kids in school. If you are a young caregiver, or a parent who requires the assistance of your child to manage a medical condition, sometimes reaching out is the first step to finding help. You may start by reaching out to people and resources below:

  • Family members and friends can be resources for sharing caregiving duties while youth are at school, as well as giving young caregivers a trusted individual to talk to when their parent may not be available.
  • School guidance counselors may be able to offer information on any special programs for youth caregivers.
  • By talking to educators, like a trusted teacher, about your home life, you may find flexibility in assignments and support to help you succeed at school in the face of adversity.
  • Local chapters of national organizations, such as the MS Society or the Alzheimer’s Association, may be of assistance in providing links to youth caregiving support groups.
  • Local social service agencies may be able to help with financial assistance for in-home care or provide links to emotional support resources for the whole family.

There’s no doubt that youth caregivers face unique and difficult challenges as they work to complete their education, enjoy their youth and ensure their loved one is well cared for and safe. Without assistance, these children and teens are at a high risk of leaving school and missing out on a wealth of opportunities over the course of their lives. However, with a support network of other family members, educators and community resources, young caregivers will have a better chance of successfully navigating the challenges of growing up as the caregiver.

Content contributed by ClearCare Online