En español | When we told them we were moving their grandparents up from Florida to live a mile from us, my teenagers said nothing. Perhaps unrealistically, I'd been hoping for a more enthusiastic response. Instead, in their blank faces I sensed their fears (later realized to a degree) that our family life was going to change. Was I hurting them, I wondered guiltily, by inflicting my caregiving choice on them?
In those anxious and often hurried moments when we make the commitment to care for our aging parents, we don't always take fully into account the ramifications this decision will have for others, particularly those for whom we have already been providing care — namely, our children. According to a 2009 National Alliance for Caregiving/AARP survey, more than a third of caregiving families had children under age 18 living at home, and 1.3 million American children participated in caregiving activities. A 2014 University of Miami study found that young caregivers spend about two hours on weekdays and four hours on weekend days caring for family members, instead of participating in academic or fun activities.
Those children are typically affected in good and bad ways. The good effects include learning more deeply the meaning of family through making sacrifices on behalf of those we love. There may also be the pride of contributing and making a positive difference. These can be powerful spurs to growth in moral character.
Among the bad effects, children may lose some of the carefreeness of childhood. Their parents, overwhelmed by caregiving duties, may not be as available to them as they were previously. In the worst cases, children can wind up feeling abandoned and bereft. When children themselves take on new roles and responsibilities to help their grandparents, they may feel burdened, even resentful. According to a 2012 study by Donna Cohen, Ph.D., and colleagues — cited on the website for the American Association of Caregiving Youth — these kids are at risk for developing depression and anxiety, especially if the person who is receiving care lives in the same household with them.
In other words, children in these situations, like family members engaged in all types of caregiving, may experience "gains and strains." Here are some ideas for parents to maximize the gains and minimize the strains:
Balance involvement with protection
Children can be asked to take on a particular chore or provide company to an ailing grandparent as part of the family caregiving team. But unless family circumstances are dire, the idle, playful days of childhood should be zealously protected; caregiving duties should be secondary. Even when children express joy in helping, the impact of caregiving on their normal course of development should be continually assessed by parents. If children's schoolwork or friendships are beginning to suffer because of time spent watching a grandparent, then their family obligations need to be reduced.
Use age and maturity as your guide for caregiving duties
It goes without saying that children at different ages have different needs and capabilities. Make your requests for help appropriate to the child's developmental level. Young children shouldn't be made responsible for specific caregiving tasks but often can be counted on to bring cheer, enthusiasm and abundant love to older family members. Teenagers, while more capable and self-sufficient, may be touchy about losing time with friends and can become moody and oppositional. They should be given choices about how they might like to participate. Children between the ages of 7 and 12 — much more able than younger children but not as resistant as teens — typically still want to please their elders. They are at the ideal age to approach caregiving duties cooperatively and reliably.
Employ carrots, not sticks
Asking kids to help an older family member is not as straightforward or emotion-free as assigning them a household chore. Avoid pressing them too hard to help. If they are uncomfortable, allow them to say no. Praise or reward them for the help they are willing and able to give — and go easy on the guilt if they don't meet your expectations.
The best reward is your time
A family that devotes all of its energies over months and years to meeting the needs of only one member is a family out of balance. Despite the urgent concerns of the older adult, caregiving parents, however stressed, should carve out time to focus exclusively on their children. That means taking at least one weekly respite from the rigors and sadness of caregiving to hang around, play and have fun. Kids need to be given the message that the family is resilient and that some semblance of normal family life will endure, even if their grandparent is fading.
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