Among the benefits of living in an industrialized society is the fact that, as medicine and technology improve, people live longer and the birth rate declines.
But these advances may in fact make life harder for America’s youngest adults, who find themselves increasingly called on to care for aging parents and grandparents even as they are figuring out how to care for themselves. Luckily for them, studies show that millennials are also more willing to be caregivers than previous generations.
Maggie Gonzalez, 25, of Olney, Md., spends Sunday mornings gently waking her 85-year-old grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s disease, by smoothing a warm towel over her face. She moisturizes her skin and helps her use the bathroom and dress. “I pick out two outfits and let her choose, because given too many options she gets confused,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez’s mother and her mother’s six siblings work full-time, so when Gonzalez finished nursing school 21/2 years ago, she spent 50 hours a week helping her grandparents. Now that she has a job, she still spends 12 hours on Sundays caring for them at their home in a Rockville senior facility.
“I was always raised to respect my elders, and I always spent a lot of time with them,” Gonzalez said. “They ask me who I’m dating and what bars I go to…and I really enjoy hearing about their past.” On a recent drive, her grandfather took her on a tour of houses he had built in Potomac. “He was a builder, so he built the first house with his six kids, and he took me by the house. It made me tear up, because they’re so old.”
Nearly one-quarter of America’s adult caregivers are between 18 and 34, part of a rising generation expected to shoulder more responsibilities as their parents and grandparents age.
The typical caregiver is still a 50-something woman feeding, bathing and transporting her ailing mother. But an estimated 9.5 million millennials now provide such help, usually to a parent or grandparents, according to recent reports by AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving.
Unlike older caregivers, 60 percent of whom are women, millennial caregivers are equally likely to be male as female. The typical millennial caregiver is 27, works at a job 35 hours a week and has an average household income below the national median. Most live with, or within 20 minutes of, those they care for.
And as more people live long enough to suffer debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer’s, experts predict that the ranks of young caregivers will rise.
“Its an emerging issue that we’re going to have to grapple with, all these young people who are potentially caring for a parent or a grandparent and how they’re going to manage all these responsibilities at the same time that they’re trying to go to school or hold down a paying job,” said Lynn Friss Feinberg, a senior strategic policy adviser at AARP’s Public Policy Institute.
Caregiving can foster family closeness, but it can also encroach on young people’s finances and personal lives. Early adulthood is traditionally when Americans take time to focus on themselves — getting an education, launching a career or starting a family — and caregiving eats into that.
From an economics standpoint, putting in several hours a week with Grandma is probably not the best use of one’s youth, said Philip Cohen, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland.
“In your 20s and 30s, you’re ideally accumulating work experience and savings and education, and if the need to care for relatives is impinging on this, then that is a problem that compounds throughout the lives of the cohort,” Cohen said.
Countries such as China and India, which do not have social security programs, lose productivity because young people are expected to take care of older relatives, he said. “It’s an inefficient use of our social resources, and if this is happening systematically, then there may be holes in our system of care and we should think about addressing it at a societal level instead of haphazardly within families.”
Judith Vick, 30, of Baltimore took a year-long leave from medical school last year to care full-time for her mother, who had suffered a massive hemorrhagic stroke. Vick has cut her caregiving to 12 to 15 hours a week and plans to return to school in December, but she expects the continuing responsibilities to take a toll.
“I know that there’s this tremendous potential for me to contribute to society, and I’m at a launching point in my career right now, and needing to go to a pharmacy that’s 45 minutes away because the closer pharmacy didn’t have the right medicine and then waiting an hour to two hours because they didn’t actually get the prescription, that’s like three hours in an evening when I need to be doing my work,” she said. “That’s a very different situation from someone who’s very settled in their career.”
In some ways, millennials are perfectly suited to be family caregivers. More than 40 percent live with their parents at some point as adults, and they are marrying later than earlier generations, leaving them more time to spend with parents or grandparents.
They also may be particularly open to caregiving because they experienced less of a generation gap than baby boomers did with their own parents, said Stephanie Coontz, research director at the Council on Contemporary Families.
“You have them relating to their parents as friends a lot more,” she said. “They’ve developed much more of a sense that ‘I’d sure like to help out’…and there is also a sense that parents are helping their kids out materially a lot more than in the ’50s and ’60s, so you get a sense of gratitude there.”
Although their caregiving involves the same basic duties as that of their older counterparts, there are generational twists.
“Millennials are brilliant at resource-finding,” said Jan Dougherty, director of family and community services at Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix. “We’re seeing new apps that are being developed, that millennials are probably going to be early adaptors of” — for example, one that allows family members to coordinate care across the country. “Older adults may not be as tech-savvy or as confident exploring on the Internet,” she said. “This is a way millennials can get involved and help them.”
The even male-female split also dovetails with the generational ethos. “We’re seeing real changes in millennials’ attitudes toward masculinity, and their ideas of sharing more egalitarian work with the women, and seeing themselves as co-nurturers,” Coontz said.
The gender statistics reflect the changing face of the workforce in the past 50 years. Millennial women, on average, have higher educational attainment than their male counterparts, Cohen said. And middle-aged women who may have been available to care for family members in earlier generations are more likely to be at work.
“More family members are going to have to be involved, instead of it being just the adult daughter,” said Gail Gibson Hunt, president of the National Alliance for Caregiving. “Because the adult daughter is working, it will have to be younger family members stepping in instead of the 52-year-old.”
A willingness to help
At the same time, families have grown smaller. Millennials have fewer siblings, on average, than their parents or grandparents, meaning the burden will be heavier for them, Feinberg said.
Jeffery Gelman, 30, of the District is the only family member available to care for his 67-year-old father, who has Parkinson’s-related dementia. Gelman, who works in U.N. affairs at the State Department, flew to Chicago 24 times in the past three years to help his father go to doctor’s appointments.
Last month, he moved his father to a facility in the District, and he says he and his fiancée have committed themselves to staying in the area, even if it means giving up opportunities elsewhere.
“I feel like it’s kind of what I have to do for my dad,” he said. “I think of all he did for me and all the sacrifices.”
But it’s not just a sense of obligation. “I get to hang out with my dad,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of meals together that I wouldn’t have been able to have, so it’s been good, and I appreciate that.”
That willingness is typical among millennials. A Pew survey taken last year found that 86 percent of adults ages 18 to 29 said adult children have a responsibility to help their elderly parents financially, if they need it, compared with 72 percent of 50-to-64-year-olds and 64 percent of people 65 and older.
That may help lighten the burden, Hunt said. “One of the major stressors of caregivers is feeling that they had no choice in taking on the role of caregiver, but the millennial caregivers seemed to feel that they did have a choice, so that’s going to make a difference in how stressed they are.”
Gonzalez, who works full-time at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, said her care schedule makes her reluctant to go out on Saturday nights, but she doesn’t mind the trade-off.
“The conversations have changed since I’ve been spending so much time with them,” she said of her grandparents. “My Nana, even though she has Alzheimer’s, she gives really good boy advice.”
Many of her friends, who have younger parents and grandparents, can’t relate. But Gonzalez thinks it’s only a matter of time.
“A lot of them think I’m crazy, like, ‘How do you do it?’ ‘Doesn’t it stress you out?’ But I think a lot of them, when the time comes, will do it, because that’s how it is.”