There is growing attention in Japan to young people who regularly look after family members who require care because of illness, aging or other reasons.

These young caregivers may have to do most of the household chores as their parents are ill, for example, or take care of their brothers and sisters. Or they may need to attend to grandparents who have dementia.

It is not uncommon for family members to help each other under various circumstances. And children may learn valuable lessons from their experiences of taking care of others.

But young people shouldering too much of a burden when caring for family members may find these responsibilities hamper their studies or narrow their academic and career paths. Young caregivers may also find themselves isolated as people around them fail to recognize the burdens they are bearing.

Society as a whole should pay serious attention to this problem and provide necessary support to these young people, placing the top priority on protecting their rights and opportunities to receive an education.

The health and education ministries conducted the first nationwide survey on this issue. The survey, conducted in December and January, targeted second-year public junior high school students and second-year public high school students.

It found that about 5 percent of the respondents looked after family members, spending an average of four hours each day in doing so. Some 10 percent of these young caregivers said they put in seven or more hours every day taking care of other members of their families.

According to the survey findings, young caregivers tended to be absent from or late for school. These students were also more likely to fail to do their homework than their peers without such responsibilities.

In responding to questionnaires, many of these students expressed a desire to receive support to help them keep up with their classes or pass entrance exams. Many of them also said they wanted more free time.

While the number of people who need care is growing in Japan due to the aging of the population, there are fewer family members available to look after them due to various social factors, such as increasing numbers of dual-income, single-parent and nuclear families as well as longer working hours.

Experts warn that the situation is forcing more children to serve as young caregivers.

It is vital to find, as early as possible, young people struggling with the burden of caring for family members and ensure they receive necessary support. This requires more work to understand the reality of such young caregivers and enhance cooperation between schools and other organizations concerned, such as the welfare section of the local government, to tackle the problem.

The first thing to do is to ensure that these young people will receive support from existing public services, including the public nursing care program and various welfare services. Specialists who work out plans to provide such services to specific households should pay attention to the needs of children as well.

Last year, Saitama Prefecture became the first to establish an ordinance to support young caregivers. The prefecture devotes a great deal of efforts to training experts who can provide counseling on related issues.

In the current fiscal year, the prefectural government plans to offer a joint training program for teachers and local government officials in charge of welfare and a program to dispatch lecturers with experience in this area to schools. Such efforts could be instructive for other local governments.

Some citizen groups supporting young caregivers host regular meetings for such young people to exchange information and discuss their problems among the participants. Greater policy support should be provided to these activities.

The survey only covered junior and senior high school students. But university students taking care of family members may also need support.

There are other serious problems related to care for family members, such as aged people looking after other elderly family members or employees who are forced to quit their jobs to take care of family members.

Debate on support for young caregivers should also address broader issues concerning how to respond to growing needs for care in this aging society.

--The Asahi Shimbun, April 21