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You've no doubt read about the growing caregiving crunch in America. Today, more than 40 million Americans are older than 65, representing about 13 percent of the population. By 2030, there will be about 72 million older persons, representing about 19 percent of the population. And by 2050, the number of Americans aged 65 and older is projected to be 88 million—more than double the number today. Many of these seniors are living with disabilities and need help to be safe and healthy at home.
Combined with our lower birth rate, this population shift is already taxing the caregiving capacity of many families. Spouses and adult children are providing much of the care—but many of them also are busy with their paid work, all the more important because many are helping to support their senior relatives financially.
Today, an often overlooked population is being called upon to provide care: the grandchildren and other minor relatives of seniors. Experts estimate that well over a million children under the age of 18 provide some level of care for a family member who lives with a physical or mental challenge. These children are often referred to as "the hidden caregivers."
Child Caregivers Carry a Heavy Load
A recent study from the American Academy of Pediatrics showed that caregiving minors spend an average of 2.5 hours each day assisting their elderly relatives. The study authors report, "These tasks include assisting family members with getting around, eating, dressing, toileting, bathing and continence care. Youth caregivers also kept the family member company, provided emotional support, cleaned the house, shopped for groceries, administered medications, translated in clinical settings and handled medical equipment at home."
This is quite a responsibility for a person who not only hasn't attended nursing school, but might still be in high school, or even younger!
Children who are put in the role of caretaker face many challenges. Caregiving takes time away from studying and socializing with friends. The National Alliance for Caregiving reports that child caregivers are more likely to experience anxiety, depression and a sense of isolation. They may be more likely to behave antisocially than non-caregivers of the same age.
But it's important to note that caregiving also seems to benefit children in certain ways. The majority report feeling appreciated for the help they give. Many exhibit greater maturity, self-confidence and a sense of empathy.
Supporting Child Caregivers and Their Families
More communities are taking notice of the needs of these children. Support groups are springing up across the country. The most prominent of these groups, the Florida-based American Association of Caregiving Youth (AACY), was created to "increase awareness about the effects on children who provide care for family members who are ill, injured, elderly and/or disabled." The organization has created the Caregiving Youth Project, which works to ease the challenges minors experience when caring for an elderly loved one. Support services made available by the organization—such as tutoring, skills-building classes and activities designed to give the kids a break and let them have fun—have a beneficial impact on their well-being.
The first step is to raise awareness, say experts. When children are serving as caregivers, the arrangement may have gradually developed over time, with families not thinking to investigate support services that might be available. It's possible that neither the child nor the family member receiving care wants to discuss their home situation. Families sometimes fear that children will be removed from the home, especially if they are missing school.
It is hoped that increased awareness will help families better access resources and services that can lessen the load on children. Families are encouraged to contact their local senior and disability assistance line to find out about local senior support programs. Social workers and professional geriatric care mangers can provide counseling and help locate services. Working parents should talk to their employer about flex time and other support for caregiving employees.
And it may be time to bring in professional in-home care. In-home caregivers provide a variety of services, including personal care, medication reminders, nutrition and meal planning, transportation, light housekeeping, and companionship. Even a few hours of professional help per week can reduce the caregiving load for younger family members and enhance the well-being of their senior loved one.
Since 1998, the American Association of Caregiving Youth has been dedicated to supporting child caregivers and their families. Visit their website for news and information for and about young caregivers.
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