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The Unique Challenges Faced by Millennial Caregivers

Granddaughter caregiving to Grandmother

Older teenagers and young adults in their 20s aren’t the people we picture when we think of “caregivers.” Often we think of older adults, caring for much older parents. But it’s becoming more and more common for the younger generation—some not yet out of high school—to step in as caregivers for aging and ailing parents and grandparents.

Studies show that approximately 11 million caregivers in the United States are between the ages of 18 and 34 and fill this role in their families. These caregivers often have a unique perspective on their role, and special needs for support. These include:

Social support. Caregiving can be socially isolating at any age. But younger caregivers more frequently have peers who are not dealing with the same things they are—who are busy with friends, school, work, college applications, and other things more typical of their age group. It can be particularly socially isolating to be a younger caregiver.

Help navigating the healthcare system. Again, this can be challenging for caregivers at all ages. Grandchildren, however, may face particular difficulties in obtaining healthcare information for aging grandparents due to HIPAA barriers; sorting out insurance issues; qualifying an elderly relative for healthcare benefits; and becoming an advocate for their grandparent in the healthcare system. This is difficult for people at any age, but it often puts an outsized burden on younger caregivers with less experience navigating this maze for themselves.

Caregiving support. Some young caregivers are the primary caregiver; others support parents and give their free time to tasks like helping a grandparent perform activities of daily living; driving the grandparent to doctor’s appointments; managing medications; and keeping them company. Young caregivers have to balance these demands with full-time school—from high school to college—as well as jobs and other activities.

This is true for older caregivers as well, but younger caregivers are often at a crucial point in their lives when caregiving can interfere with pursuing a degree, taking a promising job or internship, or other opportunities that could lay a foundation for future success. In many instances, they need support in making sure their loved one gets the care they need, without foregoing important opportunities that could prove crucial to their careers.

Sorting out options for care. Younger caregivers have strength and energy, and are often willing to take on great responsibilities—such as providing care in the home long after others might have chosen an assisted living community. Sorting through the options for assisted living, nursing homes, in-home care, and other options can be a challenge—as well as determining when it’s right to look into these options.

Having difficult conversations with elderly relatives. Again, this can be difficult for caregivers at any age. But younger caregivers often face the added challenge of being seen firmly as children by the people they are trying to care for. This can result in the grandparent (or elderly parent) feeling reluctant to discuss crucial health, financial, or other information. This may be because the elder feels the need to protect the young caregiver, or sometimes because the caregiver is not fully seen as an adult and mature or ready enough to handle this information.

Emotional and mental health support. Millennials are not immune to the emotional and mental health challenges that come along with caregiving. The landscape of support can be different for millennials than for older caregivers. Many millennials feel reluctant to identify with the term “caregiver,” for a multitude of reasons—often because they are not the only or primary caregiver in their elderly relative’s lives—and may not be targeted by organizations or programs that provide caregiving help, or be aware of these resources.

Most policies and conversations centered around caregivers assume that those who provide care are older—adult children of aging parents—and this leaves a large percentage of caregivers out. Millennial caregivers don’t necessarily face more challenges than older adults—who are often burdened with demanding jobs and children. However, their challenges and support needs tend to be different.

Schools, organizations, and government entities could all help support younger caregivers in a variety of ways—by designing scholarships to help them continue their education, for example; or by developing assistance programs that specifically target this population. With more awareness on the part of these organizations, millennial caregivers can be better served—and become a bigger part of the conversation.

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