The number of young caregivers in Canada is on the rise and they need support to deal with the high levels of anxiety, stress and guilt they're experiencing, people in Thunder Bay heard during a presentation Tuesday, hosted by Lakehead University's Centre for Education and Research on Aging and Health.

Studies show that just under two million Canadians between the ages of 15 and 29 are acting in a caregiving role, says Lisa Loiselle, associate director of the Murray Alzheimer Research and Education Program at the University of Waterloo.

"I'm very surprised," Loiselle said. "There's not a lot of people that identify, I believe, as a young carer. A lot of people are born into a situation where somebody in their family has an exceptional need, so it's a family norm to them."

Staggering statistic

Loiselle said about 40 per cent of young carers are tending to older adults, such as a parent or grandparent, who is sick, disabled or battling an addiction. Other young people are caring for siblings, friends or neighbours.

"About one in five of those young carers report that they're caring for three or more people," she said.

"It's quite staggering, these statistics, and this is why our organization, our program, is really focussed on providing awareness in the community to the existence of young carers."

Lisa Loiselle

Lisa Loiselle , the associate director of the Murray Alzheimer Research and Education Program at the University of Waterloo, says it's important that young caregivers get the support they need, and deserve. (University of Waterloo)

There are negatives and positives to the young carer role, Loiselle said.

On the negative side, the practice can be "very, very stressful, because it's really outside of what a typical youth would be doing."

She said many of the young people are missing out on school, sports and just enjoying a carefree time with their own friends.

'Lost childhood'

"Young carers talk about that lost childhood, the constant concern over the well-being of the person that they're providing care for and that unpredictable nature of some conditions so, for example, if a parent or sibling has a life limiting illness, there's always that constant concern about what could be happening at home when they're not there," said Loiselle.

In addition, she said, young carers experience social and physical isolation, and high anxiety levels, which can lead to health problems of their own.

"There's a lot of feelings of resentment and guilt," Loiselle said.

Feelings of resentment, guilt, altruism

"If they focus on doing something that is for themselves, they could feel guilty" about not being at home. Likewise, if they're at home, they feel guilty about not doing other things, she said.

However, on the positive side, Loiselle said, young carers tend to mature quicker, they're more compassionate and can build stronger relationships with family members.

"They actually say that young carers become more altruistic."

Loiselle said it's important to think about how best to assist these young caregivers — such as identifying them and supporting them in the school setting — because as the population ages we can expect to see even more young people taking on the role.