In These Tough Times, Young Children Provide Health Care for Parents and Grandparents

Tim WelchBy Tim Welch

As the incidence of chronic conditions such as diabetes increases across the nation (in 2007, there were 1.6 million new cases of diabetes diagnosed in people aged 20 years or older), more Americans are requiring long-term medical care.  Couple that with an economic recession that has millions of workers unemployed, without income or insurance, and unable to pay expensive hospital bills, and you have a serious health care crisis.  A recent article published in The New York Times described how the pressures of this crisis are frequently falling on the shoulders of American children.  As parents and grandparents are increasingly unable to foot the bill for medical care, children aged 8-18 are assuming the caregiver role.

According to the article, children across the country are being asked to perform various tasks often becoming of professional nurses, including, but not limited to, "lifting frail bodies off beds or toilets, managing medication [including injections], washing, feeding, dressing, and talking with doctors." 

But what sounds at first like an inspiring story of role reversal, in which children selflessly care for their parents, is actually a growing problem.  Often the caregiver role is too much for a preteen to handle, and consequently they are acting out or failing in other aspects of their lives.  Some children respond by lashing out with physical aggression against their sick parents.  Some children respond by dropping out of school.  According to the article, one 13-year-old girl, whose 78-year-old grandfather struggles with dementia, bladder cancer, and alcohol abuse, said that her role as primary caregiver often causes her to think, "I hate my life."

To make matters worse, authorities–including schools, social services, and health care providers–are often unaware that children are charged with so much responsibility at home.  Schools might punish students inappropriately because they have no knowledge of the underlying reasons for their struggles or bad behavior in the classroom.  Social services and health care providers can't step in to assure that children's responsibilities in the home are appropriate because the authorities have no knowledge of the situation.  Many times authorities aren't notified because families are embarrassed they can't afford the care, or the families have cultural values that always place family first, even at a child's expense.

Some states are starting to recognize this problem and have begun offering classes at school in caregiving.  Other organizations, such as Camp Kesem, give children the opportunity to enjoy a stress-free week away from a home with a chronically-ill parent.  Other countries are doing more.  In Australia, there are an estimated 172,000 caregivers under the age of 18.  In some cases, these child caregivers are eligible for government assistance of as much as AUD 569.80 (USD 406.85) every two weeks.

As more Americans are diagnosed with chronic conditions, the United States needs to do more to help patients deal with sky-high medical costs, and prevent children from taking the brunt of the blow.  The United States government should follow the lead of countries like Australia and provide effective support.

Dealing with a chronically-ill parent is difficult enough for a child.  An 11-year-old girl should never feel "depressed" and "under pressure" because she has nowhere to turn for help.

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