One in 20 high schoolers in east Japan pref. takes care of family members: research

A man who cared for his grandmother, a dementia patient, since he was a sixth grader is seen in Tokyo on March 16, 2020. (Mainichi/Yuki Miyatake)

TOKYO — One out of some 20 high school students in the east Japan prefecture of Saitama said they were providing care for family members, including those with illnesses or disabilities, a survey by a research team have found.

Children under the age of 18 who take care of their family members with chronic illnesses or disabilities, or mental health issues are referred to as “young carers” and experts have warned if these children become overburdened with caregiving tasks, it could interfere with their school work as well as their mental and physical health. A similar trend was seen in a 2016 study targeting high schoolers in the western prefecture of Osaka. The team says they are certain that there are a considerable number of young carers among high school students in Japan.

The research group including Yoshie Hamashima, social welfare scholar and associate professor at Osaka Dental University, carried out the survey targeting students at 11 public high schools via their school from November 2018 to March 2019 and obtained valid responses from 3,917 people.

Of these, 541, or 13.8%, said they had at least one family member who required physical care, help or metal support, and of the 541 students, 241 answered that they were the ones who were providing care. The team excluded responses given by 35 students who said they were taking care of their young siblings and didn’t have any family members who were sick or disabled, as it’s hard to determine whether they were young carers subject to the study without considering their individual situations. In the end, the team concluded that 206 students were what they considered as young carers.

Of the 206, 66 said they cared for their family members “every day,” followed by 42 who answered “four to five days a week.” Another 34 said they provided care “two to three days a week.” When asked about the hours they put in to take care of their families on days they have school, “less than an hour” was the most common answer given by 86. Forty-nine students said “at least two hours,” which is said to place a great burden on children when they are trying to balance between their school work and caregiving tasks. On days there is no school, 52 said they took care of their family members “for at least four hours” and 79 answered “at least two hours.”

On the subject of whom they were caring for, with multiple answered permitted, 93 said their grandmother, 49 said their mother and 43 said their grandfather, among other members. Common conditions included physical disabilities, decline in physical function, physical illnesses, dementia and mental illnesses. Asked what they do in terms of caretaking tasks, 95 respondents said chores such as cooking and shopping, 85 said providing emotional support, 78 cited heavy lifting and 61 replied they provide assistance when going out, among other tasks.

Of the 177 who answered about the period in which they have been involved in taking care of their family members, the median figure was three years and 11 months. Over half of them had started providing care since they were in junior high school or earlier. There was at least one respondent who answered “16 years” to the effect that they had been caring for their family member since they were born.

In the 2016 research that the group conducted surveying 5,246 public high school students in Osaka Prefecture, 272 were considered as young carers, or 5.2%.

A nationwide study on young carers has not been carried out, and the research team says there have only been two cases of large-scale research targeting high school students — the one in 2016 and the latest study on Saitama Prefecture high schoolers.

The Saitama Prefectural Government, which has enacted the country’s first ordinance to support carers, is doing research on the matter, targeting all second-year high school students in the prefecture, or roughly 55,000 teens.

Hamashima told the Mainichi Shimbun, “Studies conducted by researchers are limited and the central government should work to understand the situation. If related questions are added in existing surveys, such as (the health ministry’s) Comprehensive Survey of Living Conditions, the larger picture should appear.”

(Japanese original by Hiroyuki Tanaka, Special Reports Department)

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