Children Are Increasingly Burdened with Caregiving Responsibilities

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Caregivers help people who have disabling impairments with their activities of daily living. The nation’s shortage of caregivers is tied to rising demand as the population ages. The shortage is exacerbated by the low pay that caregivers have traditionally earned.

Most caregivers are unpaid family members. They provide transportation to medical appointments, monitor medications, administer injections, manage finances, prepare meals, and help their relatives eat, dress, and take care of their personal hygiene. 

Most family caregivers are working a full- or part-time job, but those who can afford to hire caregiving help are hampered by the shortage of workers. Family caregivers have little choice but to recruit other family members to help. Some of those family members are children.

Children Working as Unpaid Caregivers

The Wall Street Journal in April 2024 explored a disturbing consequence of the caregiver shortage. More than 5 million children under the age of 18 are acting as unpaid caregivers for family members. About 70% are helping their parents or grandparents.

The number of minors working as family caregivers has grown by more than a million during the last twenty years. In Florida, 16% to 25% of children in middle school and high school are contributing to family caregiving.

Children make sacrifices to act as family caregivers. They miss school. They fall behind in classes. They forego after-school activities. They don’t have time to socialize with friends. They cope with stress and anxiety. They are more likely than their peers to become depressed. Because their grades are affected, they worry about their future.

A twelve-year-old told the Wall Street Journal reporter that she falls asleep in class because of the nighttime hours she devotes to taking care of a father who is suffering from kidney disease. Other kids share bedrooms with grandparents so they can help them use the bathroom at night.

About 22% of kids who drop out of school do so to devote more time to their caregiving responsibilities. That figure does not include the children who drop out so they can pursue work to earn income that a disabled parent can no longer provide.

Help for Kids

Communities and school districts can take steps to identify children who provide services as family caregivers. When resources are available, a school that identifies a student who is missing classes to care for a family member can refer the student to a community organization that provides support services. 

A nonprofit in Palm Beach County, Florida, has been a model for such organizations. The American Association for Caregiving Youth has offered support to caregiving kids since 2002. The association offers tutoring and other resources to help students improve their grades and stay in school through graduation.

The association also offers classes that help students learn to manage finances and cope with stress. In addition, caregiving students are given recreational opportunities that help them decompress.

Help for Families

While nonprofit organizations fill a gap, most caregiving children have nowhere to turn. The federal and state governments have sufficient resources to free children from the responsibility to act as caregivers, but legislators lack the political will to fund caregiving.

The National Family Caregiver Support Program provides grants to states, but the grant money is primarily used to give information to caregivers, not to supply paid caregivers to families that need them. Some state Medicaid programs offer a Medicaid Self-Direction Program that pays family members to act as caregivers for a disabled relative who receives Medicaid benefits, but not every state provides that service. Qualifying veterans might get help from the VA’s Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers, but most veterans who need caregiver assistance do not qualify.

Even if government programs offered meaningful caregiving services to families, the shortage of caregivers might still be a barrier that forces families to rely on children to help their older relatives. On the other hand, government funding could assure that caregivers receive fair wages, which would likely persuade more workers to accept the demanding work of caregiving. Until state and local governments make it a priority to help older adults cope with disabilities, families will continue to rely on children rather than professionals to provide caregiving duties.

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