It is well documented that an estimated 43.5 million adults in the United States provide unpaid care to family members in any given year. However, there is a hidden population of caregivers that is far less well known – children and teenagers. It’s estimated that 1.4 million youth between the ages of 8 and 18 care for family members; 400,000 of them are between the ages of 8 and 11. They manage medications and other caregiving tasks without education or training and bear a heavy burden that has serious lifelong consequences.
There be many more young caregivers than reported. Researchers and public health officials believe that the 1.4 million estimate is low, and there may be thousands of young caregivers who are unreported because their families fear being broken up. Studies show that many of the families with young caregivers are single parent, low income, minorities.
According to the report, “According to Young Caregivers in the U.S.”About half (49 percent) of the caregivers report that they spend “a lot of time” caregiving”.
- 30 percent of child caregivers help with medications
- 17 percent help the care recipient communicate with doctors or nurses
- 35 percent of child caregivers in minority households report having no help in dispensing medications, compared to 11 percent in non-minority households
One of the first studies to reveal this hidden population of caregivers was conducted by the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Researchers studied 28 middle school and high school students between 12 and 19 years of age who are caregivers for sick family members with a range of illnesses including neurologic diseases, diabetes, functional decline/mobility loss, asthma, vision loss and other conditions. They also discovered that the young caregivers help sick relatives to manage medications, as well as assisting with personal care and mobility. As researchers report, this presents its own special set of risks.
- Tasks involve organizational and administrative responsibilities
- Youth have varying degrees of knowledge pertaining to these medications
- They lack formal education about their responsibilities
- Managing medications is associated with emotional responses
- Possible safety issues exist
The Miami study revealed that many of the children were receiving medication instructions directly from healthcare providers and they interact “substantially with medical professionals”. That presents its own risks and opportunities.
- Several participants in the study reported difficulty understanding instructions, either written or as instructed in person by a healthcare professional.
- There is an opportunity for healthcare providers to support and educate them
The consequences are lifelong. At an age when these young caregivers should be attending school and learning, many are missing school to take care of their family members. In fact, a 2006 study conducted for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation discovered that 22 percent of high school dropouts leave school to care for a family member. Not finishing high school can consign them to lives of poverty. The Gates Foundation report states that high school dropouts:
- On average, earn $9,200 less per year than high school graduates, and about $1 million less over a lifetime than college graduates
- Are often unable to support themselves
- Are more than three times more likely than college graduates to be unemployed in 2004
- Twice as likely as high school graduates to slip into poverty from one year to the next
- A dropout is more than eight times as likely to be in jail or prison as a person with at least a high school diploma
Caregiving can be overwhelming for these youth and cause difficulties in school, behavioral issues and isolation. Studies show that boy caregivers seem to experience more sadness and isolation than girls and tend to have more problems in school. However, many youth caregivers suffer adverse effects. Child caregivers:
- Tend to exhibit more anxious or depressive behavior than non-caregivers, as reported by parents
- Are more likely to have trouble getting along with teachers
- Are more likely to bully or act mean toward others and to associate with kids who get into trouble
For those who don’t drop out, the burden of being a young caregiver also affects their performance in school:
- One in five youths said caregiving made them miss a school activity or an after-school activity
- 15 percent said it has kept them from doing schoolwork
- 8 percent said it has made them miss homework
- 38 percent said they missed school “at least sometimes” because of caregiving responsibilities
These children bear a unique hardship. It demands a unique solution that will require collaboration between healthcare providers, community resources and expert in-home caregivers. As the U.S. population ages and presses even more weight on these young caregivers, it behooves us all to support them. Together we need to find new ways to provide to their family members so children can finish school and have a bright future.
If you or your family member is considering in-home care as part of a plan to age in place, contact Family Matters In-Home Care today for a free consultation. Our team is dedicated to supporting your family and helping older adults enjoy life in the comfort of their own home for as long as possible.
Some of the services offered by Family Matter In-Home Care include: Alzheimer’s & Dementia Care, Bed & Wheelchair Transfer Assistance, Companionship, Housekeeping & Meal Preparation, Personal Care, Recovery Care, and Transportation.