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Caregiver Role Brings Purpose -- and Risk -- to Kids

Valerie Imdorf, right, and her older daughter, Ashleigh Rehs, 15, feed the family's pet parrotlets in their  Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio home.
Joseph Shapiro, NPR
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Valerie Imdorf, right, and her older daughter, Ashleigh Rehs, 15, feed the family's pet parrotlets in their Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio home.
Ashleigh lies across her family's laps for a Christmas 2005 photo. Left to right, Mike Vanover, Valerie, and her children John, 8, and Elaina, 12.
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Ashleigh lies across her family's laps for a Christmas 2005 photo. Left to right, Mike Vanover, Valerie, and her children John, 8, and Elaina, 12.

Ashleigh Rehs does a lot of caregiving for her mother, who was diagnosed last year with multiple sclerosis. Ashleigh gives her a shot every night. And when her mother, Valerie Imdorf, needs infusions of steroids, she runs the steroids and solutions through the IV tubes. It's a process that takes two to three hours each night. Ashleigh is just 15.

It turns out that a lot of kids are caregivers for parents and other family members. A survey last year found that at least 1.4 million children between the ages of 8 and 18 provide care. One-third of them help with medications. Nearly two-thirds say they help someone eat, get in and out of bed, get dressed, take a bath or go to the bathroom. That study was conducted by the National Alliance for Caregiving and the United Hospital Fund.

And while caregiving is generally a task that falls to females, among child caregivers there's a different pattern: Half are girls and half are boys.

In the year since Imdorf's diagnosis, Ashleigh has had take on a lot of household responsibilities as well as providing care for her mother.

Ashleigh, who lives in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio with her mother and her younger brother and sister, says the experience has changed her life, and in some ways for the better. Now she says she wants to go to medical school and discover a cure for MS. That's a big difference from before her mother was diagnosed.

"If you met me a year and a half ago, I would of probably told you I don't want to be anything. I might as well be nothing. I was at a state I didn't care about life," she says.

"Once I found out that [my mother] had MS, that actually turned me around because I saw the effects of what it could do. When I see that, it's like OK, I need to be here."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joseph Shapiro is a NPR News Investigations correspondent.