There are nearly 17 million unpaid caregivers of children with special needs in the United States, many of whom say they have no choice but to provide an average of 30 hours per week of care, a national study of caregivers finds.

Caregivers of children with special needs tend to be women with an average age of 40.6 who take care of a child experiencing autism, mental or emotional illness, Down syndrome, developmental delays, asthma, attention deficit disorder or other medical conditions, according to the report Caregiving in the U.S. 2009 from the National Alliance for Caregiving.

Nearly half of these caregivers say they have no choice about providing the care, which often includes overseeing the child’s condition, helping others know how to deal with the child, advocacy, administering treatment or therapy, providing medication, handling financial issues, monitoring a special diet, arranging services or assisting with daily living skills like getting dressed or bathing.

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Most caregivers are parents who are assisting a child age 10 to 17. Caregivers are most likely to be women, about half of whom are married.

Those with learning disabilities and educational issues are most likely to need the assistance of a caregiver, followed by those with emotional or mental health problems and individuals with physical conditions. Nearly 60 percent of kids who need the assistance of a caregiver are boys.

On average caregivers are on duty 29.7 hours per week, but a quarter of caregivers say they provide over 41 hours per week of care. As a result, 60 percent of caregivers say they don’t spend as much time with family and friends. They also report experiencing financial difficulties.

All this work is taking its toll, with caregivers of kids reporting that they are in fair or poor health at twice the rate of other adults.