WATCH: Youth Caregivers Fight To Finish School
Seventeen-year-old Jimmy Braat has three passions in life: playing music, photography, and being a caregiver to his grandma.
"It's all I'm good at!" he laughs. He started taking care of his great grandmother at age 9.
"My mom was always at work so it was kind of my role I guess," Jimmy says," She passed away at 92 when I was 13. So now, I take care of my grandmother."
Jimmy is three years behind in school and now participates in an online school program called hospital homebound.
While he loves his grandmother and says he wouldn't trade her for the world, he admits his education has suffered as a result of his caregiving.
"I suffer from severe depression and bi-polar disorder--anxiety because there's a lot of stress, if you really care about the person you are taking care of, you're going to be thinking are they okay, are they ok?"
There are more than 1.3 million youth caregivers in the United States. It's rewarding, but it's also stressful.
According to one study, 22 percent of high school dropouts say one reason they left school was to take care of a loved one.
It's why Connie Siskowski started the The American Association of Caregiving Youth in Boca Raton. Siskowski took care of her grandfather as she was growing up.
She knows first-hand the hardships and challenges that children who care for their loved ones face.
While completing her doctoral studies, she conducted research which looked at what helps and hurts middle and high school students learn.
"The findings were so profound, no one wanted to believe them," Siskowski says.
More than half of the 12,000 children surveyed had family health situations. One third of those reported they were either missing school, not doing homework, or had trouble concentrating in school.
A peer-reviewed article in the Relational Child and Youth Care Practice journal says that 61 percent of children ages 12-18 report feeling stress, anxiety or depression as a result of their caregiving responsibilities. The same article puts the value of youth caregiving at $8.5 billion.
Siskowski says for a long time schools weren’t aware of the struggles youth caregivers deal with on a daily basis.
"It was a time when schools were looking internally at what they might be doing and they weren't looking at what were the barriers to children being able to learn," Siskowski says.
Barriers like having to feed, dress and give a grandparent medication -- all before catching the bus at 7 a.m. Or more internal barriers, like feelings of isolation and depression.
The AAYC serves 500 children from grants and donations. Since a youth caregiver's needs are as unique as the child, Siskowski's organization goes into the home to see what exactly what these needs are. It can be as basic as providing a family of pots and pans or helping a student apply for college.
A Huge Burden
Siskowski says young people often end up as caregivers because of our health care system.
“Families without insurance might not have any type of health care insurance," Siskowski says. " Families without resources may not have purchased long term care insurance.”
“There is a huge burden on the families and expectation from the health care system that families will help take care of their loved one who is sick, or elderly or disability and they don’t really look at the capability of the system.”
Jimmy spends several days a week at his grandma's Lake Worth home. It's right down the street from where he lives with his mother. He runs errands, does work around the house, and takes his grandma to her doctor appointments.
A few times a week, he takes on the responsibilities of a nurse.
"She has Lymphedema and to prevent her legs from swelling and sores developing from the water getting out, me and mom have to wrap her legs," Jimmy says.
When Jimmy's not caring for his grandma, he’s playing his guitar. He says he doesn’t have many friends and he isn’t planning on going to college. Siskowski says he’s come a long way from their first meeting.
“Jimmy’s had his ups and downs over the years and we’ve had our concerns about him but he’s really seemed to turn the corner,” Siskowski says.
“He’s so bright and it’s really wonderful to see he is progressing and will wind up being a very productive person within our society.”
Siskowski was recently named one of CNN's top 10 heroes.
For more information on the American Association of Caregiving Youth, go to (www.aacy.org)
Sarah Pusateri completed this story as part of "Dropout Nation," a project of the PBS show "Frontline" and public media stations across America, including WUSF.