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Kids who are caregivers risk their health, academic progress

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At least 1.3 million American children and teens bear a heavy — and rarely discussed — burden. They’re caregivers, looking after adult relatives with Alzheimer’s, heart disease, diabetes, alcoholism and other maladies.

A new study of middle-schoolers in Florida, presented recently at an American Academy of Pediatrics meeting, indicates that these youngsters spend close to two hours each school day helping ill and/or elderly adults with mobility, dressing, going to the toilet, meals, medications and many other necessities — all at the expense of their own schoolwork, self-care and socialization, WebMD notes.

The study, sponsored by the nonprofit American Association of Caregiving Youth (AACY) and conducted by the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, looked at child caregivers in Palm Beach County, Florida, an area whose demographics closely mirror national averages. The kids reported a median of 2.5 hours per school day devoted to caregiving, and 4 hours on weekends, while family members estimated caregiving time somewhat lower, at 1. 5 hours on weekdays and 2.25 hours on weekends.

Caregiving skewed heavily female: 63 percent of the home helpers were girls, 37 percent boys.

Connie Siskowski, founder and president of the Boca Raton-based AACY, expressed concern that caregiving is robbing kids of study time, exercise and self-care. “Our children are sacrificing their academics, their health and well-being in order to provide care,” she told The Washington Post.

The AACY said that the 2005 estimate of 1.3 million child caregivers nationwide is likely on the very low end, the Post reported.

On the Senior Living Blog, the AACY’s Director of Education Services, Dr. Ann Faraone, connected youth caregiving with demographic trends. “There’s a dynamic in this country of grandparents raising children, because the parents aren’t in the picture for whatever reason,” she said. “Then five or six or seven years down the line, the grandparent gets sick, and who’s gonna take care of them? The kid is the only option. It’s a huge issue, a national trend, and it’s happening around the country.”

Registered nurse LeAne Austin details some of the costs of youthful caregiving in an article in Today’s Caregiver:

“Despite [their] apparent acceptance of their ill-defined [caregiving] role, children demonstrate recognizable physical and emotional responses to their situation. These can include, but are not limited to: changes in social behaviors, decline in school performance, decreased participation in previously enjoyable activities, mood disturbances, increased fatigue, personality changes and ‘escape’ behaviors, such as self-isolation.”

As difficult as it can be when illness or disability enters into a home, Austin concludes, “there needs to be equal focus on both the needs of the child and the needs of the person who is ill.”

Faraone, in the Senior Living article, explained that the AACY works to ease the lives of young caregivers by providing respite care for their ill relatives, tutoring, stress management skills, help with schoolwork and college applications and other services, as well as advocacy at the public level.

"This study is an important step toward raising awareness about the issue of caregiving youth," study author Dr. Julia Belkowitz said in a press release.

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