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Elizabeth Olson, professor of Geography and Global Studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, talks about her research as a Scholar-in-Residence at the UNC Center for Urban and Regional Studies.

To learn more about the CURS Scholar-in-Residence Program, visit here. For more on Olson’s research, visit and read UNC Research’s endeavors magazine article about Olson here.

Transcript of the video, Elizabeth Olson: Research on Youth Caregivers

Hello, my name is Elizabeth Olson. I’m a professor of geography and global studies here at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Since I arrived at Chapel Hill a little over five years ago, I’ve been working to build up awareness and knowledge and research around the issue of youth caregiving in the United States. Youth caregivers are young people under the age of 18 or young adults under the age of 24 who provide caregiving for family members. This might be a grandparent whose health is failing due to age. It might be a parent who has a chronic illness or perhaps addiction or mental health issues, or it could be a sibling who has a disability or other functional impediment. The United States is unique in the sense that we do not recognize the category of youth caregiving. We don’t consider them either caregivers or vulnerable youth and so I’ve been working with collaborators across the country, and primarily in Europe, to try and understand youth caregiving in the United States.

How does the United States compare to other countries on the issue of youth caregiving?

The United States is unique among countries of similar socioeconomic status, so as compared to places like the United Kingdom, Australia, Sweden, Norway and I could continue on, we do not recognize youth as caregivers. What this means practically speaking is that young people who are providing life-saving caregiving within their homes to their family members do not receive services and are frequently not even recognized as caregivers when they go to school, by their pediatricians and so on. And so the work of my collaborators and I has been largely to try and change that by studying, researching and ultimately understanding what youth caregiving looks like in the United States.

What is your research agenda on this subject?

So, my program of research on youth caregiving right now has four major components that are driving forward. The first is understanding the everyday experiences of youth caregiving as told to us by youth caregivers themselves. The second component is updating our prevalence information – in other words, trying to understand exactly how many youth caregivers we have in the United States and what other demographic characteristics are reflected in those numbers. A third project is a network project which is called bookend caregiving, and that’s bringing together researchers, community members and practitioners to understand the relationship between this growing number of youth caregivers for aging adults – this kind of baby boomer population that we have in the United States. And then the fourth component is understanding the history of youth caregiving in the United States. How have we become such a unique case amongst countries that are similar to us in not recognizing youth caregivers.

What is it like to be a youth caregiver?

If you can imagine yourself helping someone get out of bed in the morning, helping them put their socks on, perhaps then going and waking up a sibling, getting them to the table and making sure that they eat. Perhaps helping your family member, a grandparent, then also get to the table and eat and trying to work through all of the things that you have to do before you leave the house in order to get to your seventh grade classroom on time. Once you get to that classroom, you might be worried about whether or not you gave the right medication, you might be concerned about whether or not the pickup of your sibling has been arranged. If the weather’s bad, you might be worried about whether the buses will be delayed. And what time you’re going to get home, because you know that your family is relying on you getting there at just the right time so that you can provide additional assistance to your family. These are the experiences of at least 1.3 to 1.4 million young people in the United States. They are youth caregivers: children under the age of 18 who provide these essential services for their families and yet it’s because of the structure of our policies and our laws currently, they are not recognized as caregivers simply because they are indeed under the age of 18. And so our work is really trying to acknowledge these young people as caregivers, to understand their needs and then to be able to begin building in systems of support through very local efforts – straight from one single school straight up to national policies and legislation – whereby young people can be recognized as the caregivers and providing this essential support for their families.

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