It’s not uncommon for children of aging parents to feel overwhelmed by the responsibilities of caregiving. Studies have shown that the “sandwich generation” – adults trying to raise a family while caring for their parents – is just about stretched to their limits dealing with stress and economic struggles.
While adults may be having a hard time figuring out how to juggle all the demands on their time and resources, a new study looks at the impact on children who have had to take on a similar role as a caregiver.
An astounding 1.3 million American children and teens are caring for family members with physical or mental illness or substance abuse problems, and these children are at risk for poor health and school failure themselves according to the study.
This "hidden population" of young caregivers suffers physical and emotional stress due to their caregiving duties, wrote study author Dr. Julia Belkowitz, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
For this study, Belkowitz and her team studied youth caregivers in Palm Beach County, Florida.
Interestingly, the group of children mirrored the adult population of caregivers, with more females carrying the load than males. The average age was 12 years old, with 63 percent being girls and 37 percent boys.
When surveyed, the children reported that they spent an average of two hours each school day and four hours each weekend day doing caregiver tasks at home. Their family members said the children spent less than that amount of time caregiving. They estimated the children spent 1.5 hours a day on weekdays and 2.75 hours a day on weekends doing caregiver tasks.
The children’s tasks included helping family members with getting around, eating, dressing, bathing, using the toilet, and continence care. The youth caregivers also kept the family members company and offered emotional support, gave medications, translated during medical visits, handled medical equipment at home, cleaned the house and did grocery shopping.
"This study is an important step toward raising awareness about the issue of caregiving youth," Belkowitz said.
She and her colleagues worked on the study with the American Association of Caregiving Youth (AACY).
"Today in the U.S., there are many more than the 1.3 million children identified in 2005 who face the challenges of juggling adult-sized responsibilities of caring for ill, injured, aging or disabled family members while trying to keep up at school," Connie Siskowski, founder and president of AACY, said in the news release.
For many families, asking young children to help with caregiving may seem like the only option. This is particularly true for single parent families with no relatives nearby or two parent families that each have demanding or time consuming jobs. However, young caregivers pay a high price when asked to take over adult responsibilities. They may take extra time off from school, feel tired or overly stressed and not take the time to be with friends in an environment where they can just be kids or teens.
Parents needing caregiver help should look to other resources for assistance. While a parent might be reluctant to ask for help – fearing that certain services might try to interfere - it might be the only way to make life easier for you and your family.
The website www.aacy.org offers this advice: “If you want advice that is guaranteed to be private, use an anonymous telephone helpline or search for advice on the internet. Remember, most services and organizations that help people will only consider breaking confidentiality if they think it is the only way to keep someone safe. The Data Protection Act says that they must keep your personal information private unless you give them permission to share it or there is a very good reason for sharing it, such as keeping someone safe from harm.
If you have a disability, illness or substance misuse problem, you may be able to get an assessment of your needs from a social worker. An assessment is not a test of whether you are a good parent or not, it is a way of finding out what you and your family need to stay well. During an assessment, a social worker or sometimes a health worker will talk to you in private about your health problem and what help you need.”
This study was presented recently at an American Academy of Pediatrics meeting in San Diego. Research presented at meetings should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Sources: Robert Preidt, http://consumer.healthday.com/senior-citizen-information-31/caregiving-news-728/young-caregivers-at-risk-for-failing-in-school-study-shows-692430.html