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The Campanile

Generational caregiving can be difficult

Kate Xia

It feels unnatural to look after someone who has looked after you all your life. The earliest memories of your childhood probably start with someone taking care of you while you’re sick, but sometimes, often suddenly, the roles get reversed. I already have a difficult time just taking care of myself and my dog, along with schoolwork and other activities. But living in a family that has multiple relatives who are dependent on us due to chronic health issues carries an even heavier toll.

As our relatives age, health problems become more frequent and severe –– And it’s often the responsibility of family members to shoulder the burden of care, typically out of family or cultural obligations. These health issues may have been amplified by the pandemic, as COVID-19 isolated the elderly, harming their mental and physical health. 

A 2021 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health surveyed over 1000 people and found that 35% of respondents between the ages of 14 and 24 had, or were currently taking care of an elderly relative, with an estimated 1.3 million youth taking care of relatives with chronic health conditions. Of that percentage, over 72% said they felt caregiving hindered their educational or career prospects. And this doesn’t even include the millions more who are responsible for their younger siblings or parents with disabilities.

While high schoolers are generally not primary caregivers, the stress and sacrifice required for full-time caregiving is often distributed throughout the entire family. In an average family, parents may find themselves sandwiched between caring for their parents and their children, while simultaneously working full time jobs. Children then feel the effects of their parents’ stress and often become involved in caretaking roles themselves to help out. 

However, the effects of caregiving can be hard to notice, especially with students. A classmate may seem completely engaged during class time, or smiling and chatting with friends at lunch. But inside, every text message notification may be an emergency. Being on constant alert mode can distract students from their studies and harm their relationship with their friends.

The stress of caregiving can also fracture families. In a 2003 study of relationships, nearly two thirds of caregivers reported unequal responsibilities between siblings. Resentment can then brew between siblings and other family members as some feel they have to self-sacrifice and put their life on hold while others can live unrestricted. This issue is also gendered: daughters are often expected to take on the role as primary caregiver, with daughters averaging 12.3 hours of care per month compared to sons at 5.6 hours

My family is one of the lucky ones — we’ve been able to work well with our extended family to distribute caregiving equitably, allowing every member to take a break from the intensity of caregiving. On the other hand, I’ve seen more distant relatives of mine destroy decades-long relationships because each sibling did unequal amounts of work. 

But the hardest part is that the work compounds while a loved one deteriorates more and more each day. With some diseases, you start to lose the person you once knew — almost like a premature death. And as a caretaker, it feels like the emotional grief has to be put off for later.

The emotional grief has to be dealt with at some point though. It’s incredibly hard to lose a loved one, regardless of your situation. And it’s even harder if you’ve spent the last years of their life at their side, attending to their every need at every waking hour. I’ve used the word “care” six times so far in the context of helping loved ones, but what’s most important is that you’re taking care of yourself first. You can’t support others unless you are able to support yourself first. And when you reach out for help, either to friends, family members or other adults, the process of dealing with grief becomes much easier. 

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About the Contributors
Holden Lee, Lifestyle & Science/Tech Editor
Kate Xia, Lifestyle & Science/Tech Editor
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