Who Cares About Young Carers?

Vass Bednar

I didn’t.

This summer, when my Action Canada Task Force was developing our policy project, I resisted exploring these people called “young carers.” It felt fake and imagined. The fact that I hadn’t heard of young care giving before made me wince.  I mean…there was no way it was a Canadian policy priority if it wasn’t on my radar (joke). I doubt it’s on yours.

More seriously: I felt like caring for a family member was just something normal and loving and and that “it” had always existed – so why worry about it now, and why make a big policy deal about it?

“Guys!” I dismissively implored my team via Google+ Hangout, “We can’t do a project on something no one’s ever heard of!”

But guess what? We can.

Some background: Action Canada is a public policy and leadership development program for promising young Canadians. Each year, up to twenty Fellows are selected from across the country to participate in the 11-month program. In addition to learning more about different parts of the nation and crafting op-eds, Fellows are assigned to a “Task Force,” where we develop an action-oriented policy project related to a theme. You can check out past projects here.  This year’s theme is: Does Canada have the education system(s) it needs to meet the socioeconomic challenges of the future?

We spent May, June and July in an intense deliberative process where we sought to agree on a meaningful and relevant topic. Our options bubbled with subjects that stakeholders obviously cared about: the “boy problem,” Aboriginal education, teacher training, school readiness, e-learning, and culturally relevant health and wellness. And then the novel and totally unfamiliar: young care giving.

Who are these considerate youth? Young carers are most commonly identified as young individuals under the age of 25 who play a significant role in providing physical and emotional care to a disabled, ill, or mentally challenged  family member such as a parent, grandparent or sibling (precise definitions vary). They are an important but uncounted group in many Canadian communities. We are focusing on teenagers— young carers between the age of 12 and 18, though we acknowledge that there are significant numbers of young adults and younger children who are also young carers.

Why teens? We believe that teenage caregivers are an important subset of this group because they are situated at the confluence of elementary school, high school and higher education. The level of support provided at this stage in life will strongly influence their completion of high school, and transition to postsecondary education or the workforce.

We hope that our project will help lend urgency to what is currently an invisible (or less visible) policy challenge. There has been some buzz around the topic lately. In particular, a report out of the Vanier Institute called, Young Carers in Canada – the Hidden Costs and Benefits of Young Caregiving(2012) helped position the familial issue.

And yet, the lack of a collective identity amongst young carers coupled with the inherent private-ness of the activity continues to contribute to its elusiveness on any policy agenda. In fact, young carers are emblematic of a classic policy dilemma whereby a lack of data and sense of urgency are at odds with each other: early research suggests the activity is prevalent, which compels concerted national survey research; and the absence of such descriptive national data weakens the seriousness of the problem.

So, who cares?

Right now, the non-governmental sector does. The Cowichan Family Caregivers Support Society, Hospice Toronto, and the Niagara Powerhouse Project are all engaging young carers and beginning to share program-related data that is helping us better understand young carers. But their impact is limited to local geographies and addresses only a piece of a much larger problem. For instance, these locally-based programs do not provide respite, financial assistance to young carers, and are not connected to the health and long-term care system.

Researchers also care. University of British Columbia faculty Grant Charles, Sheila Marshall, and Tim Stainton are leading the charge in a Canadian context by publishing case-study research. Their work provides a reference for other Canadian provinces.

Because Human Resources and Skills Development Canada funds the Cowichan program, we might be able to say that itgovernment—‘cares.’ But Canadians lack a national strategy for young carers that would officially recognize and define young carers. By lacking a coherent policy response, we’re failing young carers.

And why should educators care? Our policy approach is through ‘education’ interpreted as a mechanism and system because classrooms are a key nexus for support and place of negative impact. Young caring in the home can lead to lateness and absenteeism from school. The psychic burden of caring can also make it difficult to focus on the classroom. Positive outcomes can be realized and measured here.

Our list of potential responses to this problem is plentiful:

  • A national survey (more data)
  • A video game for young care-givers to raise awareness and build community
  • A tool kit in schools as a resource for educators
  • A national caregiving strategy that includes young carers
  • A walk-on story line about young carers on a popular soap opera
  • A monetary transfer in the form of a “carer’s allowance
  • An awareness week and/or festival
  • A charity for respite opportunities  
  • Championship from Canadian public figures

By failing to formally acknowledge and address the reality of young carers, Canada is not only failing a subset of it’s youngest generation but also falling behind comparable jurisdictions that boast sophisticated government-led policy responses  to and recognition of young carers like: England and Scotland (Young Carers), Australia (Carers Australia), and New Zealand.

Now, what about you?

If you care, check out our website. And if you (still) don’t, tell us via Twitter! Your reactions will help us shape the final report. And, if you’re in Vancouver, British Columbia on Friday, November 30th, please join us for a Public Dialogue on Challenges and Change in Canada’s Education Systems. We’ll hear from Grant Charles, an Associate Professor in the School of Social Work at the University of British Columbia, Jeremy Berland, Deputy Representative at the B.C. Office of Representation for Children & Youth and Caroline Krause, Member of the National panel on First Nation Elementary and Secondary Education. Plus, you’ll get to learn more about the other Task Force projects, Standardized Testing in Canada and Teaching Questions Not Answers. More information on this event can be found here. The final reports will come out in February if you care to read them.

Vass Bednar (@VassB) is a graduate of the MPP program (2010) and currently works at the School of Public Policy & Governance as the Manager of Engagement and EA to the Director. She is a 2012-2013 Action Canada Fellow who wants to make public policy more fun

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