It’s the ultimate role reversal: Your mother or father’s health takes a serious turn, and now you must parent your parent. It’s common to think of this happening when an adult child is middle-aged or older, but a younger generation of family caregivers is emerging, as millennials — now the largest generation in the country — begin supporting aging baby boomers.
An estimated 10 million millennials have taken on a caregiving role (for parents or other adult loved ones). Many young caregivers find great joy in spending time with a family member who needs them, but they can also feel stretched thin and unseen.
“I really think it’s a hidden population,” says Ron Singh, finding a few spare minutes for a phone call between his work as an attorney at a bank in New York and his work taking care of his mother. “You don’t really fit in, per se, with your peer group when you’re doing this. You sacrifice a lot.”
In addition to feelings of isolation, young caregivers can struggle to build a foundation for themselves. Time and money dedicated to helping their loved ones can be detrimental to their education, career paths, financial stability, and general well-being.
In 2015, Angelena Taylor of Detroit was just 28 and in her first semester of graduate school, when she came home to discover that her father had had a stroke. It left him unable to walk and left her scrambling to take charge of his medical needs, while attempting to keep her own life on track.
“I had to jump into action,” she says, recounting her first hours and weeks as a caregiver. “It was a very new frontier for me to take on. In the beginning, there was lots of frustration, lots of tears from both of us, adjusting to our new roles.”
She managed to complete her master’s degree in educational psychology, but she lost a couple of jobs when employers would not accommodate her need for a more flexible schedule. And she lost a boyfriend, who said he felt neglected. She has since found other work, but romance remains difficult.
“Trying to date as a millennial caregiver is not easy,” Taylor said. “If a guy’s like, ‘Hey, let’s go out tonight!’ I gotta put like 500 things in place before I can make that happen,” she added with a laugh.
“It’s really hard to take big steps when you’re caregiving,” said Adrienne Glusman, an online business manager/public speaker/caregiver in Florida whose mom suffers from a disorder called multiple system atrophy. While sharing her story has helped her find purpose, she has in some ways felt stalled. “[I’m] seeing all these people around me really settling into these lives of getting married and having kids and purchasing their first home.”
It is no surprise that 80 percent of younger caregivers report being stressed. Depression and burnout are common, and the emotional effects can linger even after a loved one is gone.
Jennifer Levin, a freelance writer in New York, was 32 when she began caring for her father, who was diagnosed with a rare neurological disease. Following her dad’s death, she experienced symptoms of PTSD. She encourages millennials who find themselves in her shoes to identify themselves as caregivers, because knowing and adopting the term can enable them to more easily find help. Noticing a scarcity of groups specifically for younger caregivers, Levin launched the Caregivers Collective, as a virtual meeting place for millennials looking for such a community.
“We’re dealing with people with such acute medical conditions that we think of our own stress as, ‘Oh, whatever, I can deal with it,’” Levin said. “You know that old adage of ‘Put your own oxygen mask on first.’ If you don’t take care of yourself, you’re going to burn out real quick. And you’re not going to be able to do what you’re there for.”
For all the struggles of being a caregiver, there’s something wonderful that the experience can teach, Levin believes.
“You’re really learning to love somebody in a different way. You’re really seeing what you’re willing to give to somebody else and the lengths that you’ll go,” she said. “And you’re able to kind of reframe the relationships in your life through that lens. Who are the people I would do that for? And who would do that for me?”
And when caregivers feel recognized, supported, and informed, their everyday acts of heroism can seem less overwhelming. Toward that end, The SCAN Foundation is raising awareness about the challenges that younger caregivers face by encouraging the connections and conversations that can make a difference.