Risks and Rewards Await Growing Number of Young Senior Caregivers

Increasing numbers of seniors are entering their golden years needing care by family members to complete even the most basic tasks.

According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, National Center on Caregiving, in 2012 more than 65 million caregivers provided care to an adult who is ill, disabled or aged.

43.5 million family caregivers provide some level of care for someone 50+ years of age.

14.9 million of these family caregivers care for someone who has Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia.

These numbers are incredible and are expected to grow as the senior population grows. Unfortunately, the family caregivers who care for senior loved ones are also aging.

Who will be giving their elder family members care in the future?

Growing Numbers of Younger Caregivers

There are more and more young people taking on the mantle of caregiving to senior adults.

The US Census Bureau estimates 5.7 million grandparents live with their grandchildren in their home. Some of these grandparents are nurturing the kids but many kids are now providing senior care for the older adults.

It is thought that 1.3 to 1.4 million child caregivers between the ages of 8 and 18 are caring for family members, including older adults.

Most alarming of all is the statistic that 22% of high school dropouts leave school to care for family.

Oftentimes younger people take care of family members, especially grandparents, while their own parents are at work, are depressed or suffering from substance abuse.

Some children have to act as interpreter for their family when English is a second language, which means they are mediators in the healthcare team.

There are many cultural reasons that children take on the caregiving role in a family, including poverty, divorce, sickness, and crumbling of the family unit.

Regardless of the reason, more of the responsibility for senior care is being shouldered by teens and younger children.

Not surprisingly, these younger caregivers report being an observer to the family dynamic and taking the stress of the situation upon themselves.

Effects of Youth Providing Senior Care

Caregiving for family members, especially senior loved ones, is usually a joy, as you are giving back for all that was given to you, and it is fulfilling and purposeful. It can also be stressful and create emotional, financial and physical stress for many caregivers.

When you are a young person serving as a family caregiver, the stress can be more difficult. No one really knows how to help you and the young person doesn’t have experience to guide them with tasks or how to ask for help.

Here are some pitfalls for younger caregivers:

  • Lack of knowledge about disease or treatments
  • Unable to handle psychological and emotion consequences of caregiving
  • Lack of resources
  • Inability of peer group to support caregiving needs
  • Little attention given to their health or needs as caregiver
  • Takes time from their childhood, unable to attend age appropriate events, miss out on activities with friends; lose a carefree life
  • May overwhelm time needed for studying resulting in poor grades; often absent from school frequently; difficulty getting teachers to understand why homework not done
  • Age may mean they can’t legally act on of their senior loved one especially at end of life
  • Limited support groups for their age group
  • Little recognition or support for grief given during aftercare
  • Become isolated and feel alone; mood swings
  • Put their own future on hold including college or career
  • Fatigue and illness
  • Grow up too fast

Caring for Young Caregivers

Family caregivers who support their parents, grandparents or other family members need to be even more careful to meet their own individual needs.

This, in many instances, means that the young caregiver has to be the one who ensures that their needs are met since there may be no other adult looking out for their needs. If there was, the adult family member would take over the caregiving role so the young person wouldn’t have to be responsible for a senior.

Here’s some advice for young family caregivers.

  1. Be your own person. Do things that you enjoy. Take time to be yourself and do things that other kids your age are doing. Listen to music, go to the movies or just hang out with your friends.
  2. Ask for help from adults. It is important to recognize that you aren’t saving the adults in your life from worry when you assume the entire burden. Now they are going to have to worry about you too. Engage the adults in your home or community to help. Perhaps extended or long distance family members can help do something to relieve you of tasks so that you can be a kid and do your schoolwork. They could pay for home care so you can attend school. Provide respite for you so that you can find time to be with friends. Maybe longtime friends of your senior can pitch in to do household tasks for your family member. Don’t be afraid to ask!
  3. Seek out other young caregivers who are walking in your shoes or have recently done what you are doing. These people will be able to relate to you, share experiences and support you in your journey the way kids at school can’t.
  4. Gain knowledge about the disease or illness of your senior loved ones so that you will be able to be prepared for changes, treatment and behaviors especially with dementia. Learn about their medications so that you can administer them safely. Learn how to be a better caregiver with local classes that could help you stay safe when transferring your senior or for giving first aid. Take a CPR course.
  5. Express your emotions. You will have down days, be frustrated and even guilty. It is OK and even normal to feel a wide variety of emotions, more than one at a time sometimes. You have to have an outlet for your emotions so that you stay well. You can talk to a counselor, therapist, church leader, or a trusted adult. You can also use a journal that you keep private to express your feelings. Talking about it is the first step in coping with whatever emotions you have in a healthy way.

Young Family Caregivers Need Adult Support

Adults need to realize that being put into a role of providing senior care, especially to a loved one, is even more challenging to the lives of youthful caregivers than older family members in the same role and help them understand and follow the advice above.

Caregiving children are part of a growing phenomenon, not just in the US but also globally. We will have to come to terms with this situation as a society and provide alternatives to adult family members who are unable to – or won’t – care for senior loved ones without relying on children to be primary caregivers.

Every child should be allowed to be a kid, have access to an education and not be compromised physically and mentally as a result of caregiving. Helping grandma is different than shouldering full responsibility for grandma’s health, well-being and safety.

As former US First Lady Rosalynn Carter said so well:

“There are four kinds of people in the world:

Those who have been caregivers;

Those who currently are caregivers;

Those who will be caregivers;

And those who will need caregivers.”

We need to help our youth stay in the “will be caregivers” caregivers category as long as possible and give them all the support they need if their caregiving future is now.