When Children Must Care for Others

More than one million children in America are, for all intents and purposes, serving as caregivers, looking after younger siblings or an ailing parent. Gail Gibson Hunt, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Caregiving, discusses the issue with Farai Chideya.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

While Ray Ray's life has been anything but easy, he's also lucky. More than a million American kids between the ages of 8 and 18 care for siblings or adults in their family. That's according to a first of its kind study conducted last year by the National Alliance for Caregiving.

The president and CEO Gail Gibson Hunt joins me now from NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Welcome.

Ms. GAIL GIBSON HUNT (President and CEO, National Alliance for Caregiving): Greetings.

CHIDEYA: So how do you define a child caregiver?

Ms. HUNT: Well, it's really somebody who provides unpaid help or care to somebody who's sick, or disabled, or has a chronic illness, or frail, or mentally ill. That's a definition that we used in determining whether these children were caregivers - and the kinds of help that they provide too.

So they are typically providing - maybe doing grocery shopping, and helping with meal preparation, and watching their brothers and sisters if they have a disabled parent, doing shopping, housework - that sort of thing. But half of them are actually doing what we'd call personal care, which is bathing, dressing, feeding, moving somebody from a bed to a wheelchair, really intense personal care activities.

CHIDEYA: So we just heard a story of a teen who's taking care of his younger brother, and you're also talking about children taking care of adults. Is there any kind of split that seems more common? Is it the children taking care of adults or other children?

Ms. HUNT: Oh, almost 75 percent - three-quarters of these kids were taking care of a parent or a grandparent. So the sibling caregiving that we were just hearing about is not nearly as typical as a child helping a parent or grandparent.

CHIDEYA: So if for example, you are a friend or a teacher or a mentor, and you notice a kid being stressed out, what kinds of approach could you take to finding out if the kid is overburdened with responsibilities at home being a caregiver?

Ms. HUNT: Well actually, this is, as you said, a brand-new study in the U.S., so we have no familiarity with this issue - or very little. But in the U.K. and Australia, where they have hundreds of programs for kids like these - kids who are caregivers in the schools - they train teachers and guidance counselors to be on the lookout for kids who are extremely tired in class; kids who are good students but neglect their homework; those kinds of things - and to actually talk to the child, see if they are having a problem at home. Sometimes they'll be very reluctant to discuss it. And they have special programs for these kids in the schools, so they can have counseling, for example, at lunchtime. That's something they'll do, and a lot of times they have camps for kids who are caregivers so they can actually get together with other kids and recognize that they're not alone, and there's help out there from adults.

CHIDEYA: I believe that you studied Australia and the U.K. How do their policies differ from U.S. policy?

Ms. HUNT: Well, they both have, in their census, have actually taken - actually asked the questions and know how many children there are who are caregiving. And this, as I said, is a completely new area for us. And then they both have designed programs - through caregiving organizations - designed programs for children who are caregivers, in the schools and in recreation programs. And in particular, they have some wonderful Web sites - both in Australia, in the U.K. and in New Zealand - where you can go online, have a chat room for other kids that are facing the same issues as you are and learn what resources are available.

CHIDEYA: How do these child caregivers break down along gender lines, income lines, racial lines? Do you have any idea about that?

Ms. HUNT: Oh yeah. Well, we were really surprised. Actually, it's almost a 50-50 split between boys and girls, in terms of kids who are doing caregiving. They do tend to be more likely in lower-income households and in single-parent households. So we know that that's an issue, and the prototype, actually, of this child would be someone who is taking care of a single mom who has MS, for example. So you kind of get the picture of the child coming home from school, actually having to do a lot of the tasks, perhaps, that the parent would typically do and then also having to take care of the parent and do bathing, dressing, feeding, assistance with those things and then also helping with little brothers and sisters.

CHIDEYA: So what is a possible remedy, or what are possible remedies to children who don't really have a lot of childhood because they're so busy taking care of other people?

Ms. HUNT: Well, the first step, we think, is really a public-awareness campaign to let people know that there are these kids out there, to let teachers, guidance counselors and the health-care system know about it because it's the nurse and the physician who are sending this parent or this grandparent home knowing that this kid is the only one at home to take of them. So we need to have much more public awareness.

But then the second step is to really get both the schools energized about having programs for these kids as well as having the health-care system begin to recognize them and have programs in the hospitals, for example - support programs - in the hospital the way they do for other caregivers. Plus, there are a number of disease-specific groups - the MS Society is a good example of that - that have programs specifically for children caregivers. And we need to have more of those.

CHIDEYA: Well, Gail, thank you so much.

Ms. HUNT: Well, I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about this. It's a really opening - groundbreaking issue. Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Thank you. Gail Gibson Hunt is president and CEO of the National Alliance for Caregiving. And coming up, the Chinese government says ixnay on Jay-Z. Plus, some Muslim cabdrivers also say no to carrying passengers who've been drinking alcohol. We'll discuss these topics and more on our Roundtable, next.

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