Young Carers in Switzerland
When family members fall ill, children and adolescents are often amongst those taking on the duties of caring for and looking after them. However, the wider public remains largely unaware of this. Now, for the first time, some actual figures are available for Switzerland, pointing out that far more children are involved than previously assumed.
When parents, siblings, or grandparents become physically or mentally unwell or even die, childhood is no longer a carefree time. Often there are children and adolescents who have to take on duties normally performed by adults. They look after their family members and care about their needs – and sometimes even take on care duties such as administering medicines or infusions. In most cases, not even their teachers or instructors know what they are doing beyond their school work or training courses.
Children, adolescents and young adults who provide care – or young carers and young adult carers to give them their official title – have been the main focus of the research undertaken since 2014 by Prof. Dr. Agnes Leu and her team. Prof. Dr. Agnes Leu is head of the “Young Carers” research programme at Careum Research, the research institute of the Department of Health Science at the Kalaidos University of Applied Sciences.
First figures thanks to surveys
In the past, there were no accurate figures regarding how many children and adolescents in Switzerland were affected. Other countries have been more progressive in this context. The UK, for example, has been researching children and adolescents who care for and look after relatives for over 25 years. Now two major national online surveys are providing reliable data for Switzerland for the first time. In a nationwide online survey, children at 230 Swiss schools aged between ten to fifteen were asked a series of questions. It had previously been assumed that four to five per cent of the children in Switzerland were caring for and looking after people – as it is the case in other countries for which studies already exist, but this figure will now need to be revised upwards. It turns out that in reality almost eight per cent of children and adolescents look after or care for family members – slightly more girls than boys.
In an other nationwide online survey 3518 education, healthcare and social care professionals have shared what they know about young carers and how often they come across children and adolescents performing care duties in the course of their work. The survey revealed that professionals are still not (sufficiently) familiar with the phenomenon of young carers. Once the terms and concepts had been explained to them in detail, however, 40 per cent of those questioned said that they had come across young people fitting this description in their day-to-day work. This is hardly surprising as young carers tend to go unnoticed most of the time. They feel their situation is normal and hardly ever ask for help – often out of a sense of shame or embarrassment. In many cases, therefore, they only come to teachers’ attention when they are having problems to concentrate or to get enough sleep or when their school work starts to suffer, for instance. In general, professionals wished that they had more information and specialist training to help them spotting these children and adolescents earlier and reach out to them in a targeted way.
These results mark an important first step in drawing attention to the situation of young carers in Switzerland. Therefore, both politicians and society at large urgently need to take action to ensure that young carers receive better support in future at school, when training or at work. And this is why Careum Research will be involved in further research over the next few years, implementing various national and international follow-up projects. Based on these results potential solutions and support measures will be developed.
Federal Council report
At a meeting held on 5 December 2014, as part of its “Health2020” health policy priorities, the Federal Council approved the “Report on supporting people looking after and caring for relatives”. The Federal Council makes it clear that the care and support of sick family members by relatives will become even more important in future, on account of demographic developments. In particular, this is because the Swiss healthcare system lacks the necessary personnel and money to be able to cover the increasing requirement with professional care. The Federal Council has therefore initiated various measures to support relatives and to promote the reconciliation of caring for relatives with work.
Postulation on children providing care
On 2 September 2015, the Federal Council expressed its view on a postulation by CVP National Councillor Barbara Schmid-Federer. She suggested a report be produced on the situation regarding minors caring for sick or disabled parents. This subject is actually mentioned in the report published on 5 December 2014. However, it is not elaborated. The Federal Council rejected the postulation, giving the reason that, as part of implementing the action plan for the support of relatives providing care and support, it would pay particular attention to the specific requirements of children and young people providing care and support