Many families try to keep it secret. They don't want it known that children in their family are pressed into service as caregivers. It seems wrong for children to have to take on such responsibilities. Kids should be able to be kids.
Although understandable, this attitude ignores a basic truth: Children are taking on caregiving responsibilities because there is no one else to do it.
What Are the Facts About Children Caregivers?
In the United States over a million children are caregivers, and about a third of them care for grandparents, according to a 2005 study by the National Alliance of Caregiving (NAC). The NAC considered those between the ages of 10 and 20, but other organizations and other countries use other cut-off ages. In the United Kingdom, where child caregivers are noted on the census, children as young as five can receive this designation. In Australia, on the other end of the spectrum, those up to age 25 can be considered "young carers."
The number of child caregivers is likely to increase before it abates. As life expectancy increases, so do the challenges of caring for an aging population. Obviously it is not practical for all the elderly to be cared for in institutional settings. Home care may soon become the norm, with more agencies pitching it to make it practical. In the meantime, children will continue to be called upon.
Positive Aspects of Children Caregivers
Grandchildren have some advantages over older caregivers. Their grandparents are less likely to lose patience with them. When the elderly have dementia, they often suspect their caregivers of stealing from them or plotting against them. They are less likely to suspect their grandchildren of such actions. In addition, grandchildren and grandparents may enjoy many of the same low-key activities, such as watching TV or videos; playing cards or board games; or doing arts and crafts.
While caregiving can make demands on a grandchild's sleep and study time--more about that below--the process also has tangible benefits for grandchildren. They may learn about the body and how to take care of it--and the consequences of not taking care of it. Most of them will grow in patience and interpersonal skills. They may learn household skills and time management, as well as learning to put someone else's needs first. These gains can be significant, but obviously they come with a price.
The Cost of Childhood Caregiving
A 2006 study of drop-outs indicates that around 22% of them said they dropped out to care for someone in their family. Those students who do not drop out of school may still pay a penalty. They may have less time to study. Their sleep may be interrupted or cut short. They may be unable to participate in extracurricular activities. They may suffer from isolation. Sometimes they are reluctant to invite their peers to their homes and also have trouble getting away for social events. They may take on the burden of worrying about their grandparents, with resulting depression or anxiety.
Addressing the Problems
In some countries, child caregivers are officially recognized. In the United Kingdom, for example, they are entitled to have their own needs assessed. They may receive social services and even, in some cases, cash benefits. In Australia, they have no legal rights, but every state has initiatives that address the needs of what they call "child carers." The United States, in contrast, has been slow to address the situation. The first seminar on the subject was held in 2003, and young caregivers are served by just one national organization, the American Association of Caregiving Youth (AACY), active almost exclusively in Florida although poised to spread to other states.
The practice of using grandchildren as caregivers for their grandparents is not a wholly negative one and can, indeed, result in some real benefits for both parties. Families with children caregivers should not feel that they have to hide their circumstances. They should, however, have access to an array of services when they need help. No society should expect to solve the challenges of an aging citizenry on the backs of its youngest members.
Abaya, Carol. "Grandchildren Can Help Immensely in Elder Care." NewJerseyNewsroom.com. July 13, 2012.
Becker, Saul. "Global Perspectives on Children's Unpaid Caregiving in the Family: Research and Policy on 'Young Carers' in the UK, Australia, the USA and sub-Saharan Africa." Global Social Policy April 2007 vol. 7 no. 1 23-50.
Belluck, Pam. "In Turnabout, Children Take Caregiver Role." The New York Times online edition. Feb. 22, 2009.
Young Caregivers in the U.S. Report of Findings. September 2005. National Alliance for Caregiving.