We adopted a toddler internationally, so we’ve — in the words of a family member — jumped right into the fire of teething, testing boundaries, and tantrums… all with a little one who is learning a whole new language.
It’s exhausting. It’s also tremendously exciting and rewarding to see her learn new things, acquire new skills, and make progress every day, sometimes even every hour.
Some caregivers don’t get the benefit of seeing that growth. Those caring for people with degenerative illnesses and conditions are usually watching the opposite happen. I can’t imagine what that’s like, how you keep yourself going when the care you’re pouring yourself into isn’t generating a visible return on investment.
But more and more, there are caregivers providing both types of care (both for an individual who is declining and one who is still developing), and they’re getting younger too.
The sandwich generation, which up until now has been mostly boomers simultaneously caring for aging parents, children and sometimes grandchildren, is expanding. Now, young caregivers in their teens, twenties and thirties are caring for one or multiple family members: siblings, children, parents, grandparents.
Last October, a CNN article Young Caregivers Put Life On Hold revealed these striking statistics: there are currently an estimated 1.3 million child caregivers in the US. The article tells the stories of several teen caregivers; a 14-year-old daughter caring for her mother after she suffered a massive heart attack and two more to follow, a 13-year-old caring for his older brother, who is paralyzed, and another teen caring for her younger sister with gastroparesis.
There isn’t a whole lot of data (yet) on this cadre of caregivers, which means there isn’t a whole lot of community support or resources either. As the article says, “The long-term effects of being a child caregiver aren’t well studied.” However, I think we know enough about the often detrimental effects of being an adult caregiver to know that the earlier such intense caregiving duties begin, the more the health of the caregiver is at risk over time — and for a longer period of time.
Now, as we think about the current caregiver shortage in relation to a world where individuals are living longer and with more chronic illnesses, it’s frightening to think that “future” caregivers in many cases are already filling that position. And that they may have to help more than one family member over time, or even simultaneously.
As my husband has said frequently in the last few weeks of caring for our daughter: “I don’t know how single parents do it.” We need to support caregivers of all ages, from single parents to members of the sandwich generation, from the older, frail adults caring for spouses and siblings to these young caregivers who have a very long road ahead of them.
If you know someone who is a caregiver today, no matter what their role or age, reach out and offer help of any kind. We must all take action and responsibility, for we may all need or serve as caregivers someday.