Young Carers in the U.S.
art by Sol Skelton
Every morning I wake up my little sister at 6AM so we can leave the house together without being late for school. I pick her up from tap or robotics at 7:30PM and we come home by 8, when I make or order dinner for the two of us. I help her with her homework and tuck her into bed, and then try to sleep more than a couple hours before we do it all over again the next day. (I usually try to finish my homework during free periods at school, because between track and caring for myself and my sister, I don’t have time to get my work done and get some sleep in the night).
I come from a well-off family in Brooklyn. My parents, a doctor and a lawyer, work long hours –– they’re often home for dinner on the weekends, but Monday through Friday my sister and I essentially live alone in the apartment. There’s only a three-year age difference between us, but since I was twelve I’ve become her primary caretaker.
For me, it’s not a problem. My days are scheduled down to the second and often stressful, but I always manage to finish my work, do my activities, and spend time with friends, even if I don’t sleep much. And I rarely skip class otherwise, so it’s really not so bad if I have to miss my morning courses to attend my sister’s parent-teacher-conferences.
But I am one of millions in the U.S. –– one of millions who, in addition to being an athlete and a student and a minimum-wage employee, are caretakers for a family member. (I say millions instead of an exact number because the only data on the subject comes from a 2005 study that was offered exclusively to the children of English-speaking parents who consented to their child being interviewed –– so the 1.6 million young carers they reported is probably low-balling it). Students younger than eighteen years old who live with someone too old, too young, or too handicapable to take care of themselves are recognized in Europe (especially in the U.K., where there are several organizations et governmental measures to serve the needs of these “young carers”) and they are given both understanding and accommodations from their teachers, and sometimes a personal aide or money from the government–– they automatically receive a social worker to offer support in person or over the phone, and if the carer’s responsibilities amount to over 35 hours a week, they are given a weekly allowance by the government. But in the U.S. there exists neither financial compensation nor recognition, by neither schools nor the government. These young carers have no choice but to assume responsibilities that eat away at their time for schoolwork, a social life, and self-care, as well as forcing more stress into their daily lives; young carers experience elevated rates of depression and anxiety, and often find it difficult to concentrate in school –– imagine being the primary caretaker for your grandmother, whom you have to leave home alone while you’re at school; will she remember to take her medications? Will she slip and fall in the bathroom? How will she be when you finally get home? Will she still be there? Young carers worry more, and studies have shown that they suffer from feelings of inferiority and insufficiency for their families, significantly more than other kids their age.
The U.S. has but one a single organization dedicated to young carers. And while it’s true that one organization is better than none, the American Association of Caregiving Youth (founded in 2006) only has the capacity to serve the carers who live within its specific neighborhood in Palm Beach, Florida. For the majority of young carers in the country, the existence of the AACY serves only to show them that the country is capable of recognizing their struggle, and theoretically could offer support, but makes the active decision not to.
If you are or you know someone who needs resources as a young carer, the Caregiving Youth Institute is a subsection of the American Association of Caregiving Youth dedicated to connecting struggling carers with experts in the field from the US and the UK. If you want to help support young carers of the U.S., donate to the AACY here.