In the United States, there are an estimated 1.4 million caregiving youth (children under the age of 18), and nearly 10 million Millennial caregivers (aged 18-34 years old). Of the millions of young caregivers, I believe every single one is an advocate. Advocacy means that you speak up for another person’s needs, views, and try to help them get support. As caregivers, advocacy is a way of life. You may speak to health or social care professionals on behalf of your family member, coordinate service care delivery, oversee your family member’s medication administration, and manage your family’s household. You are the expert on your family member’s care.
While you are well-versed in advocating for your family, you may find speaking up for yourself more difficult to do. As a young caregiver, self-advocacy can present its own set of unique challenges.
What are barriers to self-advocacy?
Lack of awareness in society & unsupportive environments: Unfortunately, many people do not yet recognize the vital role young caregivers play in our society. This lack of awareness often means that people do not understand your caring role and how it can impact all parts of your life. Society also tends to overlook and disregard the experiences of young people with caregiving responsibilities, and health professionals may not view you as a “caregiver” because of your youth.
Fear of mistreatment & associated stigma: You may stay quiet about your caring role because you don’t want well-intentioned professors, bosses, or friends to worry over you and treat you differently than everyone else. At work, your supervisor or co-workers may not understand your life as a caregiver, and you may might fear losing your job. If you provide care for someone with a socially stigmatized condition, e.g., mental illness, visible physical disabilities, or HIV-AIDS, you may fear that by speaking out as a caregiver, you will also “out” the condition of the person you care for.
No support available: In some situations, those around may already know that something is “up”, because of late or missed days at school or work. Conversely, you may be very open about caregiving. In such scenarios, people are aware of your caring role, but you find that there is little or no support available to you as a young caregiver. Supportive services may be directed towards your family member, rather than you, the caregiver.
What are ways to self-advocate?
Despite its challenges, the act of speaking up for yourself is impactful and meaningful. Every time you engage in self-advocacy, you continue to spread awareness about young caregivers. Even in the seemingly small moments, your words and actions demonstrate to society that young caregivers exist and matter.
Express your needs and desires within your family: To combat potential feelings of resentment, it is important to keep the lines of communication open in your family. You may want to engage in family group conferences to discuss current and future care plans. If you foresee sharing or shifting caregiving tasks to younger siblings, you’ll want to discuss with them the practicalities of the caring role and what this will mean for everyone in the family.
Inform doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals that you are a critical participant in your family member’s care, and express your desire to be involved in discussions.
Tell professors, administrators, work supervisors, and friends about your caring role and the ways it impacts your life. This may mean requesting a “grace period” to submit assignments, asking for flexible schedules and work hours, requesting to keep your cell phone turned on and kept with you, in case your family member needs to reach you in an emergency, etc. Self-advocacy in the workplace also means knowing your legal rights, so that you may be aware of potential issues of workplace discrimination.
Ask for help: Seek out extended family members, neighbors, or friends to help with caregiving tasks, or to give you a bit of respite. You may also wish to contact supportive organizations for help.
Monitor your own mental health and well-being: Take breaks (even just for a few minutes), practice self-care, exercise, and maintain a healthy diet. Keep up to date with your own doctor’s appointments and annual tests. You may wish to attend support groups and/or seek out a mental health professional if needed.
Get involved: Call or write your government representatives and vote. Use technology and social media to your advantage: there are several online caregiver support groups on Facebook and Twitter, and they can be a great way to meet other caregivers, ask advice, or vent! You could start a blog about your experience as a young caregiver or post videos to YouTube. You may also want to share your caregiving story through participation in caregiver research studies; this can be an impactful way to help other caregivers on a wider scale!
Remain encouraged as you seek to advocate for yourself. You serve an irreplaceable role in our society and you deserve recognition and support!
Can you think of other ways to self-advocate? How have you advocated for yourself and did you find it helpful? Please share your comments/suggestions below.
This article was originally published on the website of Christine M. Valentin, licensed clinical social worker, and may be accessed here.
An American Doctoral Researcher at the University of Birmingham in England, Caregiver Advocate, Mental Health Counselor