Who Cares? Children as Caregivers

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 Appťtit among other publications.


K s Goh
KS Goh6 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Linda J.
Linda J7 years ago

Reading theses stories makes me grateful that my daughter and I do not have these issues,sad for all involved.

Morgaine G.
Mindi Gomez8 years ago

My adoptive mother had mental illness problems, prescription drug addiction that was encouraged by her doctors and from that, kidney failure and renal disease.

I began having to care for her when I was 5 years old. It was confusing for me, but it had to be done. As I grew older and she grew worse, it became strange, as I became a teen, I got a night job and was gone as much as I could be, doing my chores, but leaving her as much as I could to my father. (poor man)

She died when I was 18 and I was actually relieved, more than sad.

Needless to say, I won't touch drugs, prescription or otherwise, except for antibiotics and allergy meds.

Made me jaded and very hard for me to accept help and love from anyone.

So, I raised my children on everything natural and organic, and damned if I didn't have to argue with my ex for offering them pot!!

According to my shrink, I married my mother. Mean, and physically abusive. Somehow I got away, but it was very hard.

I don't advocate giving a young child adult responsibilities, ever.

Julie M.
Julie M8 years ago

The most difficult challenge is my own journey.
I wrote this with in a comment which I wrote on March 27, 2009.
Well, let me just continue this journey with all of those who were so thoughtful as to share their joys, fears, and respect -love and yes--hatefulness towards their parents. For those who have sent me messages of how they wish they still had their Mom/Dad-- I can not express any words to comfort you in your grief. I can not say "I know how you feel"--I know what it is like to lose a loved one, my fiance passed away a few months before our marriage--my sister was killed at 25 y/o--I watched my daughter whom at 25 y/o took on the roll of her father's
care giver as he was also dying of cancer and before his life was taken from this horrific illness--he took his own life at the age of 46. Her life will never be the same and has never been the same.
I 'am very grateful for all the memories which all of you have shared with me--life is not easy--it is not fair--it has many hurdles and challenges to manage--some of us can deal with these hurdles with hate and resentment and some of us go on with our lives as if nothing had happened at all.
We are all different and deal with the care of our loved ones as they begin to approach the closing of the circle in many different ways.
I respect all of them--I respect all of you--who took the time-love -thoughts and memories of your loved ones and shared those with me.
I Would like to thank all of you.
Blessings to all

Julie M.
Julie M8 years ago

I am the sole care provider for both of my parents.
As I watch the circle of life come closer to full circle--there are many questions which I still have as well as many challenges ahead of me.I have the utmost respect, love and honor for them both. It has been a privilege to continue to have them both in my life. The wisdom I still gain from them both is priceless-caring for them is an honor--not a burden.
Yet for me, it is the most difficult challenge which I have faced in my own journey. I try to continue to give them the life which they are accustomed to--the independence which they still maintain, yet for me it is a tug-of-war with in my own right. I watch them deteriorate mentally & physically everyday, yet still give them the respect and love, support and dignity which they are to be given, and I try very hard to give it to them--but sometimes I myself find this difficult.
My parents are nearing the 80 y/o mark and it is still an honor and a blessing to have them both, for I know so many who do not.
I am very proud to say they are my parents--and they are still proud to call me their daughter.

Cindy Wilson
Cynthia Wilson8 years ago

These are all very good comments. They all bring up the many points of caregiving. I believe for every person, it is a differnt story.
My mother came to live with us 2 years after my dad passed. I have to say, I thought I new who she was, but, I didn't. I knew her through child eyes. When she came to live with us, my eyes opened over time, to see the real person she is. I was frustrated, than angry. Then compassion and understanding opened my eyes, and the guilt, anger, frustration, all eased. I finally saw her for who she is through the eyes of an adult. She is very fearful, unsocial, angry, prejudice, scared of her mortality and what happens when she dies. Her inability to make decisions stems from her fears of the unknown, and keeps her from moving forward.
But knowing all this (and much more) helps to deal with her better, but, I still have days I think I am going to pull all my hair out and run down the street screaming. I don't have the option of sharing responsibilities with other siblings, because they just yell at her or tell her to go away. I don't feel guilty anymore about leaving her for a while to go out with the girls, or on a hike by myself.
I learned there are services in my community that I can take her to, that will watch her and keep her entertained while I shop or just take an hour at a coffee shop with a good book. I have learned to savor these moments, and to try and make special moments with her too.

Archana Banerjee
Archana Banerjee8 years ago

In my childhood days I used to care my grand parents, and a parrot (rescued by my mother from storm).Now I am 55, I spent my entire life by caretaking good, needy and weak relatives. I think I am very happy, healthy and balanced, and caretaking weaker needy child/good person is a positive experice for mind and health.

Anna Dear
Anna Dear8 years ago

I teach in a high school and find it heart-breaking when a kid who is having to juggle the commitments to caring for a family member with doing well at school gets told off by staff who simply don't understand. But with folk living longer, there's another problem: kids who have to watch their parents' lives consumed by the demands of the older generation. One of my students broke down in tears one day with his worry for the stress his mom was under, caring for HER mom. She spent many hours away from the family home and the kid said 'I know it sounds selfish, but I just want my mom back.' Where do you place your sympathies in a situation like that?

Lindsey B.
Lindsey B8 years ago

As a psychotherapist, I find that children who are put into a parenting/caregiving role suffer long-term negative consequences.
However, that being said, if the family is supportive, and loving, the result is much less destructive to the young caregiver's psyche.
I often meet with women, especially over the age of 40, who feel that their entire life has been nothing but caretaking for others. They do not know what they need to be healthy and balanced and do not know how to ask for support-- they feel invisible. They feel unsupported and used, bitter and depressed. Who can blame them?
Please understand that caretaking a family member can be a positive experice but often it results in tragic consequences for the young person.