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How to Get Teens Involved in Family Caregiving

Kids can learn valuable life lessons by pitching in, but their needs matter too

Teenage boy using a smartphone with his grandfather
Sally Anscombe

About three-quarters of adults 50 or older say they prefer to stay in their homes and communities for as long as possible, according to AARP’s Home and Community Preferences Survey. When a higher level of care is required, however, many of these aging adults move in with their adult children (or vice versa) to get the care they need.

If grandchildren are part of the picture, there are ways to get kids involved with caregiving at home, and teenagers can be especially helpful. Here are some ways to involve your teens with caregiving while still respecting their needs.

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Driving

Teens who have a license and access to a car can be tremendously helpful as drivers. Although an adult may need to accompany grandparents to medical appointments, teens can free up their parents by running other errands such as picking up groceries, prescriptions or restaurant takeout.

Maribel Jimenez, a hairdresser in Milwaukee, moved her family in with her mother two years ago, when her mother’s dementia made it unsafe for her to live alone. Jimenez has her 17-year-old daughter help drive younger siblings (ages 9 and 15) to and from school, dance and soccer classes. Jimenez explains how essential her daughter has been since she got her license last year: “I’ve had to pick up so many extra hours at work, and I’m the only one that can take my mom to her appointments, so I need my daughter to help with the driving.”

Cooking

Teenagers can be helpful in the kitchen by preparing simple meals for themselves, their siblings and their grandparents. Jimenez says that when she works nights, both of her teens take over, fixing quick dinners such as spaghetti, scrambled eggs, instant rice and grilled cheese for their grandmother and younger brother.

A tween who isn’t comfortable using the stove solo can still help by making sandwiches, cereal, smoothies and yogurt parfaits, or microwaving soup and frozen dinners. If grandparents are able to make their own sandwiches or pour their own cereal but have difficulty moving around the kitchen, grandchildren can bring the ingredients to the table, which minimizes the child’s work while helping to maintain the grandparent’s independence.

Household chores

To free up an adult caregiver for lengthy, complicated or intimate caregiving tasks that aren’t appropriate for younger helpers, teens can take on a larger share of household chores. For instance, most teens are able to help with sweeping, vacuuming, taking out the garbage, walking the dog, unloading the dishwasher, folding laundry, shoveling snow and mowing or raking the lawn. Jimenez’s teens initially grumbled about receiving extra chores around the house. However, “as they got older and started seeing how much their grandmother’s suffering,” they stopped complaining about preparing Grandma’s meals and helping her get dressed, she says.

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Help with technology

Teenagers are often a great resource for using caregiving technology such as mobile apps, monitors and smart speakers. Considering that teenagers tend to be more familiar with technology than older generations, having these younger caregivers set up, control and monitor these devices is a great way to get them involved. If you don’t want teens overseeing digital medication reminders, have them help a grandparent choose and play a podcast, log into a virtual discussion group or find and join an online fitness class.

Even when grandparents know how to use their smartphone or tablet, small buttons or hand tremors might be an obstacle. If so, teens could help a grandparent look up a phone contact, send a text message, listen to voicemail or check a calendar event. Jimenez says that on a regular basis, “both my girls help their abuela (grandmother) to make calls, answer calls and read and respond to text messages on her phone.”

Making teens feel appreciated

Some teenagers could begin to resent the amount of attention grandparents receive and the time spent caregiving. That’s why parents should dedicate time to each child and preserve family traditions, says aarp.org columnist and clinical psychologist Barry Jacobs. Family touchstones should be preserved even after a grandparent moves in, whether it’s Taco Tuesday at your favorite restaurant, Friday night at the movies or Sunday afternoon football on TV at home.

It is natural and expected for teens to have responsibilities to home and family, says Mayra Mendez, a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California. Mendez says that if a teen is given access to the family car in exchange for running errands or if they receive an allowance in exchange for help around the house, it’s not a reward for taking on family responsibilities. Teens, she says, should understand the importance of “caring, good citizenship and genuine helpfulness toward others without the underlying expectation of reward or profit.”