While most preteens and adolescents play sports or video games after school, new research has found that more than 1.3 million kids spend their free time caring for a family member who suffers from a physical or mental illness or substance misuse.
These “caregiving youth” are a hidden population at risk of school failure and poor health caused by the chronic physical and emotional stress of their responsibilities at home, according to study author Julia Belkowitz, M.D., F.A.A.P.
An assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Belkowitz and her colleagues worked with the American Association of Caregiving Youth (AACY) to better understand the experiences of these kids in Palm Beach County, Fla.
They also studied the impact of services provided by AACY, including a support system, skills-building classes, home health and community resources, tutoring and respite services, along with sponsored fun activities.
“AACY services in Palm Beach County reach only the tip of the iceberg,” said Connie Siskowski, R.N., Ph.D., founder and president of AACY.
“Today in the U.S., there are many more than the 1.3 million children identified in 2005 who face the challenges of juggling adult-sized responsibilities of caring for ill, injured, aging, or disabled family members while trying to keep up at school.”
Researchers analyzed approximately 550 AACY intake forms, which included information on demographics, caregiving activities, and health status collected at eight middle schools in Palm Beach County.
They also reviewed 200 family intake forms completed when a social worker conducted a home visit with the families, as well as feedback forms completed annually by kids participating in AACY activities.
The analysis found that 62 percent of the youth caregivers were girls, while 38 percent were boys. Median age was 12.
Youth caregivers reported spending a median of 2.5 hours each school day and four hours each weekend day performing caregiving tasks at home. Estimates of median caregiving task time reported by family members were slightly lower at 1.5 hours on weekdays and 2.25 hours on weekend days, according to the researchers.
Tasks include assisting family members with getting around, eating, dressing, using the restroom, bathing, and continence care. The kids also kept the family member company, provided emotional support, cleaned the house, shopped for groceries, administered medications, translated in clinical settings, and handled medical equipment at home.
“This study is an important step toward raising awareness about the issue of caregiving youth,” said Belkowitz, who also is assistant regional dean for student affairs at the regional campus of the Miller School.
“The AACY is developing partnerships throughout the nation to further understand this special population and expand programming to provide the resources and support these young people need and deserve.”
The study was presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) National Conference & Exhibition in San Diego.