In the normal scheme of things, parents and grandparents take care of children when they’re sick or need help or sustenance. But in well over a million American families, this pattern is reversed, with children as young as 8, 9 or 10 partly or fully responsible for the welfare of adults or siblings they live with.
They may have to shop, prepare meals, clean house, do the laundry and tend to the hygienic needs of family members unable to care for themselves.
At the same time, these children must go to school, do their homework and attempt, but usually fail, to participate in nonacademic activities like sports and friendships widely recognized as important to well-rounded development.
Connie Siskowski, a registered nurse in Boca Raton, Fla., knows well the challenges these children face. As an 11-year-old with divorced parents, she began living with her grandparents in New Jersey. Her grandfather was, as she put it, “my hero, the only person I was close to, and it was my honor to help him with personal care issues.
“I slept in the living room so I could be near him in case he needed something during the night. One night I went into the bedroom to give him his medicine, and I found him dead of cardiac disease.”
There was no support system to help Connie, then 13, deal with the emotional fallout from this loss and put the pieces of her life back together. For years thereafter, she said she made poor personal choices, including three bad marriages. Her only good choice during this time: going straight from high school to nursing school, then getting advanced degrees in cardiac nursing and health care administration and a Ph.D. in educational leadership.
After her third marriage failed, she finally found her emotional equilibrium through counseling. She married a fourth time to a man who loves and respects her and, with his encouragement, felt compelled to do something to help caregiving children and “prevent some of the repercussions I experienced.”
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Jeffrey R. Ungvary President