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Dr Anil Patil

Care to Care

Child caregivers: invisible and unsupported - Dr Anil Patil

Child caregivers need support, as caregiving is not only emotionally draining, but it can have a detrimental impact on a child physically, socially, and also in terms of their education.

There are many child caregivers in India, and a lot of us do not even realize the role they have taken on behind closed doors. Often children find themselves in this position when a parent falls ill, and there is no one else to look after them. These children, with an unbelievable amount of strain placed on their shoulders, become adults overnight. They need support, as caregiving is not only emotionally draining, but it can have a detrimental impact on a child physically, socially, and also in terms of their education.

The difficult life of a child caregiver

Priya* needed support when her father was paralyzed in a tragic accident. Her mother left over night, and she was left to care for her father. She became his personal caregiver, cook, and cleaner. With no income, they soon become destitute, and Priya not only lost her social life, she also had to abandon her studies. She became stressed, angry, and upset, and felt like fleeing too. Luckily, a local NGO heard about the situation. Support was put in place for Priya, as well as her father. She was now able to continue with her studies, and care for her father before and after school. Money was also raised to construct a toilet room at the back of the house, and female staff visited Priya regularly for emotional support and advice. Although life is by no means easy, Priya now has hope for a better future.

The strain placed on children like Priya is unimaginable. They have to take on household chores, such as cleaning, cooking, nursing duties like assisting with mobility and changing dressings, and intimate care like helping with toilet requirements and washing. All this, in addition to the emotional support they need to provide to the person who is unwell, the financial burden of running a house and taking care of siblings. 

The need to care for child caregivers

Analysis conducted by the Children’s Society in the UK has revealed that young caregivers, i.e. those aged 17 years old or younger, are one and half times more likely to have a special educational need or a long-standing disability or illness when contrasted with their peers. These children are missing out on their childhood, not experiencing key social interaction with others, and becoming isolated, lonely and depressed. They fall behind in communication skills and this makes transitioning into adulthood difficult. They are also lagging behind in school, or in the most desperate of cases, dropping out of school completely. Caregiving can make a child become exhausted and fall ill, especially in a situation such as Priya’s, where living conditions are challenging.

This is why we need to help these young caregivers. This begins with identifying them within the community, as most young caregivers are invisible and try to cope alone. Once a situation has been identified, there are various ways we can help the child. We can work with the family to discover if there are any alternative caregivers from the family or the community who can take some of the burden off the child’s shoulders. School teachers must also be sensitive to the needs of the child caregiver and integrate the child back into school or college. It’s also vital to help the child have a social life, and one way to do this is by bringing child caregiver together. This way, they not only meet  each other and have fun, but they also begin to understand that they are not alone and form bonds with other children in the same situation. We can help these children to live their life and see some light at the end of the tunnel. As Priya now says, “Life is still hard, but I am back at school and can see a brighter future ahead.”

 * Name changed for confidentiality purposes

Dr Anil Patil is the founder and executive director of Carers Worldwide. Carers Worldwide highlights and tackles issues faced by unpaid family caregivers. Established in 2012 and registered in the UK, it works exclusively with caregivers in developing countries. Dr Patil co-authors this column with Ruth Patil, who volunteers with Carers Worldwide.For more information you can log on to Carers Worldwide.You can write to the authors at columns@whiteswanfoundation.org