As a child, I had an ailing father who required a great deal of care with so many exigent physical disabilities and limitations that it was hard to keep up. And keeping up, along with caring for him, was exactly what I was expected to do. Which for a child, contending with his own limited world-view, was a sizable, and sometimes overwhelming, responsibility.
While I can’t say that my father’s welfare rested solely on my shoulders, I was made keenly aware of his needs and sometimes found myself wrestling with his stubbornness in an attempt to keep him physically safe and/or appropriately medicated. But this, at best, was a part-time gig for me. However, for many children in this country (and countless children internationally) they have become the sole caregivers for ailing parents and/or grandparents–a reversal of the archetypal role of the parent as caregiver, and the child as the one who is cared for.
According to a recent New York Times report, a 2005 nationwide study suggested that about three percent of households with children ages 8 to 18 included child caregivers. Children are assuming the role of caretaker by providing routine nursing and attention to ailing parents or grandparents and assuming the responsibilities of administering medication, feeding, cleaning, and attending to their disabled relatives. But really, what option do they have?
In some instances, where family resources are plentiful, professional care is an option, or the possibility of adult family members to forgo full-time employment and serve as a dedicated caretaker is doable. However, many families (especially in dire financial times) do not have this luxury and they are forced to elect the youngest members of the family, who have little to no earning potential, to fulfill the role of nurse and guardian. In many parts of the world, this is the norm and an accepted facet of childhood responsibility.
Therefore the question is not a moral one of right or wrong, but more of a nagging issue of who provides support for the children when the children make up the foundation blocks of the familial support. In the United Kingdom and Australia, they extend rights to child caregivers, and provide these children with opportunities to participate in patient-care discussions and, in some cases, are offered help or compensation for their caregiving responsibilities. More recently, the Caregiving Youth Project in Florida was put into action by offering counseling and classes in caregiving skills.
Still it is safe to say that most caregivers that are children are not likely to receive the benefits of these programs because of issues of availability, access, personal pride, and the fact that they are likely too busy and burdened with their own mounting responsibilities. A difficult and thorny issue to say the least.
I am curious if anyone out there has an experience as an adolescent or child-aged caregiver? How would you characterize your experience? Were there unseen and unspoken benefits that helped shape and provide a more refined sense of who you are? Do you feel saddling children with this responsibility is just simply an unfortunate or objectionable practice?
Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.