By Susan Cody
As part of their Heroes section, the CNN website recently ran a story about young people "working" as unpaid caregivers for their siblings, parents or older relatives. The research showed that about 1.3 million children in America are child caregivers and that one in every five school dropouts have actually had to leave school to take care of siblings and adults.
They are a generation of caregivers that's not well known, nor well cared for, and certainly not paid. These are the children with siblings or parents who are disabled. These kids have been forced to forgo their own childhood pleasures and freedoms and adopt the responsibilities of someone far older.
At EmpowHER, we have heard from women caught in what's called the "sandwich generation" -- caring for their own children and their parents too. Found between the ages of 45 and 60, the sandwich generation is in a precarious position -- something that is not only physically exhausting, but financially draining too. This generation get no assistance for their care, their work is unpaid and all three generations feel the negative results, especially the adults caught in the middle.
Family caregivers also provide a financially valuable service. The EmpowHER article "The Sandwich Generation" said, "... these services are priceless and the family caregivers that provide them often go unrecognized and are over utilized which can lead to tremendous stress for the family caregiver. On the other hand, if these same services were provided by our national health care system, it would cost approximately 250 billion dollars per year."
So obviously, caregivers potentially save the tax payer a tremendous amount, and child caregivers are providing the same services and saving the government a similar amount of money. Having this kind of pressure can lead to mental stress in children that's not normally seen in others their age.
Some become physically and psychologically exhausted. Others drop out of school but also drop out of society, abandoning both their families and themselves because they simply cannot cope with such enormous responsibility. Those who remain at home as child caregiver can end up resenting the adults around them.
Of course, not all children turn out badly as a result of being child caregivers. They can become very kind and empathetic adults with a lot of compassion for those less well-off, and can use their experiences to help others.
CNN-profiled child caregiver Kim Shifren did not come from a privileged background. She was forced to become a caregiver as a child when her mom suddenly succumbed to ill health due to three heart attacks over a short period of time. Shifren is now a an associate professor of psychology at Towson University in Maryland and has researched the impact of early care-giving on children.
She's a remarkable success story. But she also made the decision not to marry or have children, for fear they would end up needing to care for her, based on her own mother's history of heart disease at an early age. Her childhood scars obviously impacted major decisions in her adult life.
Child caregivers receive no compensation for their work, unlike jobs that other young and older teens have. They are more likely to succumb to depression and experience behavioral problems (especially boys).
CNN also cited a study that showed elevated levels in depression for young caregivers. The study indicated that the caregivers suffered more from anxiety than non-caregivers. Many of these children feel isolated, with too much stress on young shoulders.
In other countries, government programs provide "respite care" for caregivers, including the young. This is something that advocates would like to see in America, with children attending camps or engaging in other free activities that allow them to rest and simply be kids.
With a bad economy in recent years and the resurgence of multi-generational living, child care-givers may be growing in numbers. It's time for the adults in these homes to look into programs that can help them and their children. Child caregivers should be able to have a real childhood, get an education and face a brighter future than they do now.
CNN.com. CNN Heroes. "Young caregivers put life on hold." By Jacque Wilson. . Retrieved October 2, 2012.
EmpowHER.com. The Sandwich Generation. By Rachel Wernick. Web. Retrieved October 2, 2012.
Reviewed October 5, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith
By Susan Cody