By Amy Woods
More than 10,000 tweens and teens in Palm Beach County, most hidden behind the doors of their domiciles, care for aging parents or grandparents. They bathe, clothe, feed and give medicine to the adults who are supposed to be taking care of them. As a result, the young ones end up robbed of their childhoods and sometimes suffer in school.
Connie Siskowski, founder and president of the American Association of Caregiving Youth, understands what they are going through because she has been there herself.
“I slept in the living room to be closer to him and got up at 2 a.m. to give him medication,” Siskowski said of her grandfather Joseph Vreeland, who suffered from congestive heart failure. “He was the most important person in my life.”
Siskowski, 70, of Boca Raton, was 13 then, living in New Jersey. She did caregiving duties until Vreeland died at 86.
“I was the one who found him no longer breathing,” Siskowski said. “It was more, for me, the emotional impact.”
Back then, scenarios like hers largely went unrecognized.
“Families feared being pulled apart if people knew what was going on,” Siskowski said. “Families feared someone would take their child away.”
Those fears are unfounded today. The real fears lie in the facts. In one study, 22 percent of high-school dropouts cited the reason they stopped going to class is that they had to care for a loved one. Among caregivers who go to school, 20 percent said the responsibility forced them to miss out on after-school activities, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving.
The association aims to change all that. On April 27, it will sponsor the Caregiving Youth Institute Conference with the goal of raising awareness of and generating support for a long-overlooked population.
“I think it’s really an opportunity to learn and to be able to acknowledge these kids and value what they’re doing,” Siskowski said. “We encourage people to come.”
The conference will feature expert speakers, breakout sessions and a networking event. It will identify the issues caregivers 18 and younger face and develop solutions to improve their graduation rates and return a sense of normalcy to their lives.
“Families aren’t clustered like they used to be to support each other,” Siskowski said. “We want these kids to graduate high school, go on to post-secondary education and be healthy, productive adults who have a life beyond caregiving.”
If you go
What: Caregiving Youth Institute Conference
When: 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 27
Where: Safe Schools Institute, 1790 Spanish River Blvd., Boca Raton
Information: Call 391-7401 or visit www.aacy.org