Andrea Breen, Ph.D.
When I type the words “Millennials are” into Google, four options pop up: “Millennials are lazy,” “Millennials are useless,” “Millennials are entitled” and “Millennials are narcissistic.” What doesn’t pop up is a search term to suggest the reality that we increasingly rely on our young people to provide unpaid care for adults in our families and communities. Data from Statistics Canada’s 2012 General Social Survey indicate that 1.9 million Canadians between 15 and 29 (27% of those in this age group) are “young carers”: young people who provide unpaid care for others for reasons of illness, disability, addiction or injury.
The statistics are surprising: the amount of time young people aged 15–24 spend caring for others is similar to that of their counterparts in the 45- to 54-year-old age range.1 Like middle-aged adults, most young carers provide care for just a few hours or less per week, but approximately 5% of young carers spend more than 30 hours per week caring for others. Young carers most typically look after their grandparents (40%), parents (27%) friends and neighbours (14%) and siblings or extended family members (11%). Nearly one in five (19%) of young carers report caring for three or more people.2
Canada is behind the US, UK, Australia and Sub-Saharan Africa in public awareness and policy development related to young carers.3, 4 Many Canadians aren’t familiar with the term young carers; as such, their struggles and needs remain largely invisible. At the federal level, supports that have been developed for carers, such as the caregiver credit and Compassionate Care Benefit, are intended for working adults.5 While the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal prohibits family status as grounds for discrimination, we do not yet have precedent for young carers, nor do we have explicit policies for supporting and accommodating young carers in our schools and post-secondary institutions.
Most of what is known about young carers in Canada comes from the recent work of a few researchers and a small handful of forward-thinking community organizations. There are important questions that we have only begun to ask about caregiving and its impacts on young Canadians’ psychological and social development: How might caregiving responsibilities shape or constrain identity development, relationships, educational opportunities, career development, leisure pursuits and personal and financial trajectories? How does caregiving impact on young carers’ mental health and well-being? What kinds of policies and practices need to be in place in our schools, communities, workplaces and post-secondary institutions to support young carers?
Early research suggests that caregiving can be beneficial when caregivers are supported: providing care for others can enhance social and emotional development, build a sense of competence and self-efficacy, and nurture empathy and compassion.6 I’ve seen some of the benefits reflected in my university students who are young carers. I’ve had several students who have pursued careers in gerontology because they provide care for an ailing grandparent, students who are passionate about working with children who have special needs because of their experiences caring for a sibling and students who are dedicating their professional lives to careers in mental health because they care for a parent who struggles with mental illness. In cases such as these, early experiences with caregiving can shape young carers’ identities in positive ways and orient them to a future that is focused on making meaningful contributions to others’ lives.
But caregiving also takes a toll. Young carers are especially vulnerable to social isolation, mental health challenges and lower educational attainment.7 For the estimated 47% of young carers who attend school,8 chronic lateness, absenteeism, insufficient time for assignments, anxiety and problems focusing can make balancing school and caregiving a challenge.9 One teenager I know in Nunavut recently left school to care for her dying grandmother, a situation that is much more common than most of us realize. Nationwide, an estimated 7% of young carers leave school early10 and the situation may be especially urgent in Northern Canada; in 2006 an estimated 46% of youth in the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut provided some form of unpaid care to others.11 I wonder how many teachers and administrators are aware of this reality in their students’ lives?
Supporting young carers is a complex undertaking. Young carers are a diverse group, with varied experiences and needs. There are subgroups of young carers who are likely to be especially vulnerable, including those who devote significant time to caregiving, those with few social supports as well as young carers from marginalized communities who may face intersecting vulnerabilities to isolation and invisibility. We also need to be concerned about our youngest caregivers – Statistics Canada collects data on caregivers over the age of 15 only, which means that we know almost nothing about children and young adolescents who provide care for others.
Several years ago, I worked with a 12-year-old boy who had been suspended from school for severe behaviour problems. Over time, we learned that this boy and his slightly older brother were providing care for their mother, who struggled with depression and alcoholism. The boys took care of household tasks, shopping and preparing meals, and were doing their best to find help for their mother. These boys faced the same struggles as many adult carers – exhaustion, constant worry for someone they love, a sense of helplessness in the face of illness, limited time for other activities, mental health issues and deepening poverty and isolation. But they were especially vulnerable because they were children. They lived in fear that their situation would be discovered and they would be removed from their home. They were worried for themselves and also for their mother, who they thought wouldn’t be able to survive without them.
This family’s situation is an example of the shortcomings of intervention approaches and funding models that target individuals – we could “treat” the boy’s behavioural issues in isolation, but until someone provided real, meaningful help for his family, the boy’s risks for mental health challenges, poor physical health, school failure, criminality and other potentially devastating outcomes would likely only increase over time. How many youth are there like this in our communities? How many children look after their parents and guardians who are too ill, injured or disabled to take care of themselves? So far, we don’t have the answers – because we haven’t really been looking.
I had first heard the term “young carers” in a CBC Ontario Today interview with Vanier Institute CEO Nora Spinks and I was eager to know where she thinks those of us who are researchers should be focusing our attention. Her answer? One important area of focus is caregivers who are under the age of 10. She is concerned that digital technologies may be increasing possibilities for really young caregivers to be hidden from society; she points out that it can be relatively easy to conceal when families are falling apart because so many of our interactions now occur online. We can bank online and order food online – as long as they have access to a credit card, no one sees that it is a 9-year-old who is taking care of these tasks.
Demographic trends including an aging population, smaller families, more skip-generation parenting and geographical dispersion mean that the number of young carers in Canada is rising.12, 13 We need to focus attention on young carers in order to move people into awareness and action. There is a great deal of work to be done to develop research, programs and policies that can help us recognize and nurture the caregivers we depend on. Most importantly, we all need to look more closely at the children, youth and young adults in our schools and communities to recognize the hidden challenges they face and the remarkable contributions that so many of them are making.
Andrea Breen is an Assistant Professor of Family Relations and Human Development at the University of Guelph. Her research focuses on storytelling and implications for well-being, resilience and social change; and the use of technology to enhance well-being in children, youth and families. Dr. Breen has extensive experience developing innovative educational programs in school, mental health and detention settings and she served as Chief Scientist for the parenting app, kidü. Dr. Breen completed her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology and Education at OISE/UT. She also holds a master’s degree in Risk and Prevention from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Bachelor of Education degree from McGill University.
Action Canada Task Force (2013), Who Cares About (Young) Carers? Raising Awareness for an Invisible Population.
Battams, Nathan (2013), “Young caregivers in Canada,” Fascinating Families 59, The Vanier Institute of the Family.
Bleakney, Amanda (2014), Young Canadians Providing Care, Statistics Canada.
Charles, Grant, and Tim Stainton and Sheila Marshall (2012), Young Carers in Canada: The Hidden Costs and Benefits of Young Caregiving, The Vanier Institute of the Family.
Stamatopoulos, Vivian (2015a), “Supporting young carers: A qualitative review of young carer services in Canada,” International Journal of Adolescence and Youth.
Ibid. (2015b), “One million and counting: the hidden army of young carers in Canada,” Journal of Youth Studies.
1 Battams (2013).
2 Bleakney (2014).
3 Becker (2007).
4 Stamatopolous (2015a).
6 Charles, Stainton, and Marshall (2002).
7 Charles et al. (2012).
8 Bleakney (2014).
9 Charles et al. (2012).
10 Bleakney (2014).
11 Stamatopoulos (2015b).
12 Stamatapoulos (2015a).
13 Stamatapoulos (2015b).
Programs and Networks:
Hospice Toronto Young Carers Program