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Youth who act as caregivers for family members need extra support, in and out of school

By: Nathalie Alvarenga and Erik Brady

Youthcast Media Group®


Millions of American high-schoolers and middle-schoolers carry caregiving duties in their families. It can be a heavy load.


Sara Poole knows all about this. Her two children helped her when her mother, their grandmother, suffered from Alzheimer's.  "Their schoolwork definitely suffered because they were tired when they had to take care of grandma at night,” Poole says. "Their social life suffered because they felt they couldn't have friends over since grandma was so unpredictable you never knew what she was going to do."


Now Poole is co-chair of the national advisory council for the American Association of Caregiving Youth, which bills itself as the only organization in the United States dedicated to serving the needs of young people who are caregivers. It counts their number at 5.4 million caregivers between the ages of 8 to 18, up from about 1.3 million nearly 20 years ago. Experts peg the rapid rise to an aging population coupled with the skyrocketing costs of in-home and nursing-home care.

Courtesy of Sara Poole

These children and teens help their ailing elders in myriad ways – feeding and dressing, cleaning and cooking, driving to doctor appointments and juggling demands.

   

The AACY says young caregivers are called on to "provide significant assistance or care to a family member with a chronic illness, disability, mental health condition or frailty due to aging.” About two-thirds of young caregivers are helping their parents or grandparents. 


Other young caregivers help siblings or other extended family members. They face the usual troubles of growing up while also tending to the unusual troubles of their families.  "Young carers," as they are called in the UK, are often given governmental support for their work. That mostly doesn't happen in the U.S.


"Caregiving for a loved one is among the most demanding, challenging, and rewarding human activities," the AACY says on its website. "Although children are commonly thought of as the recipients of care – rather than the givers – children all over the world participate actively in caregiving every day. The U.S. does yet not have formal policies or support systems in place for these young people as we do for adult caregivers."


Schools ought to identify and provide support for young caregivers, the AACY says. Otherwise, they are at risk for academic, social, and emotional challenges.


"The stresses of caregiving affect a young person’s academic performance and school attendance," the AACY says. "Providing support and accommodations helps ensure they are able to attend school, learn, and thrive. No child should have to drop out of school or life because of family caregiving."


Florida and Rhode Island are among the few states that try to track the number of young caregivers through school-based surveys. As many as one-quarter of middle schoolers in Florida have caregiving duties. In Rhode Island, caregiving youth were 15% more likely to experience ongoing sadness than



their peers.


Poole points to an AAYC initiative in Palm Beach County, Florida, called the Caregiving Youth Project: "We have over 600 kids signed up for the program. We do caregiving coaching sessions in school. We coach them in specific problems or issues that they might have in the caregiving world.”


Poole praises her own children for the care they gave her mother when they were young. "They were really instrumental in taking care of their grandma," Poole says.


Young caregivers ought to be recognized for their contributions to their families – and to society as a whole. "Their dedication and selflessness deserve admiration and support from their communities," the AACY says. "It's crucial that we create an environment where youth caregivers feel seen, valued, and empowered to seek help when needed."



Nathalie Alvarenga is a rising junior at Annandale High School in Virginia, and has acted as a caregiver to her grandmother when she needed treatment for cancer. Nathalie worked with YMG Mentor-Editor and former USA Today reporter Erik Brady on this story. YMG has a partnership with Annandale’s journalism class. 


 


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