The Hidden Population of Caregivers
The reality is stark: there are over 1.4 million youth caregivers from age 8-18. These teens have found themselves thrust into the role of a caregiver for their disabled, ill or senior family members. The American Association of Caregiving Youth (AACY) calls these young caregivers a “hidden population,” because they suffer from a systemic lack of support from their schools and communities.
We had the opportunity to talk to Dr. Ann Faraone, the Director of Education Services, about how the AACY was founded, their mission, and their goals for the future.
Founded by Connie Siskowski in Palm Beach County, Florida in 2005, the American Association of Caregiving Youth is the only organization in the country dedicated to providing support for the young caregivers of family members. Their mission is to build bridges of support within schools, healthcare systems and communities in order to help these children succeed in school and at home.
As Ann Faraone notes, “Connie has a nursing background. She cared for her grandfather when she was young, and didn’t fully realize the impact it had on her until she was an adult, when she became a cardiac nurse.” So, Siskowski started the AACY in part to connect with children in the home and help provide respite care for families. But, equally important is their work reaching youth through the schools. As Faraone describes it, “Poverty is a known issue; hunger is a known issue; no one was really looking at the caregiving issue. There’s all kinds of research about how trauma and stress negatively affect the brain development of young children.”
Caring for the Hidden Population
“We know that education can help bring people out of poverty,” says Faraone. But, there are so many factors outside education that create barriers to success. “We have more than 4,000 nonprofit community-based agencies in Palm Beach County. They’re doing wonderful work, yet it’s still not enough to make up the difference for struggling families. Kids dropping out of school because there’s not enough food at home is something that should never be happening.”
When you’re young, it’s incredibly important to your development that you have the chance to “be a kid.” That’s why the AACY describes part of its mission to help young caregivers as restoring their role as children. The organization works diligently to raise awareness in schools and create support systems, because, as Faroane notes, “Kids take on this extra responsibility not always very willingly. Many of them are very resentful about it, and there’s a lot of anger—they want to be at the movies, not changing adult diapers.” That anger and resentment is a huge issue as it relates to going to school every day, and makes having support within the school all the more critically important. “As one kid said to me recently, ‘I know they can’t fix all my problems, but just knowing that they know I have these problems, it helps me get through my day.'”
Resources and materials the AACY provides children include:
- Access to computers and the Internet
- School supplies
- Skill-building and stress management group activities
- Workshops to help develop personal goals
- Assistance with college and scholarship applications
- Providing support to social workers who help kids understand that they’re not alone
- A summer camp that “gives them a little bit of fun in their lives”
“We also do a lot of advocacy,” says Faraone. “A lot of speaking and reaching out. I had a similar situation in my own home as a youth, and I had resources, I had assistance. So think, if you’re 13 years old and you don’t have that help and resources — it’s just a huge impediment to success in school. There’s a dynamic in this country of grandparents raising children, because the parents aren’t in the picture for whatever reason. 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. The most recent research showed 1.4 million kids as caretakers of family member(s) in their household, and that definitely under-reported.”
Making a Difference
The AACY is working with universities to train new teachers to have awareness, and training faculty so that they can train new teachers, guidance counselors and special education teachers (as Faraone puts it, “Kids sometimes manifest learning disabilities when that’s not actually the issue at all—it’s what’s going on at home”). Raising awareness is important, because it paves the way for people to take a more active role in supporting caregiving youth. “We recently put in an ad for summer tutors — we don’t want students to lose ground during summer break — and many of the teachers who responded were ones that we had given a 15-minute presentation to. They’re aware of the issue now, and they want to help.”
To view or download the AACY’s new Content Capsule, please click here. It’s a great way to begin the path toward helping others to understand family caregiving by children.
Have you had experience caring for a loved one at a young age? Please share your story in the comments below.
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