My college years weren’t characterized by wild sorority parties, study abroad opportunities, nor honor school retreats.
Instead, they were spent caring for my two-time cancer survivor, five-time hip replacement recipient grandmother suffering from late stage Alzheimer’s.
Driving her to and from doctor’s appointments, preparing meals and distributing medication, ensuring post-op physical therapy compliance dominated my college years.
At the time, I was pretty sure I was the only millennial with caregiver responsibilities.
I recall submitting an absence slip to one of my professors, notifying them of my anticipated week-long leave when my grandmother’s brain surgery was scheduled. Upon reading the request, the prof scoffed, “In all my years of teaching, I’ve heard a lot of excuses, but this is a new one.” I ended up having to “prove” my caregiver status and corresponding surgery dates just to prevent being penalized for extended absence.
Turns out, I wasn’t alone…
Meet the Millennial Caregiver
Millennials are emerging as a generation of caregivers.
The latest Millennial Caregiver Report from the National Alliance of Caregiving and the AARP Public Policy Institute show that Millennials (ages 18-34) make up nearly a quarter of the approximately 44 million caregivers in the United States.
Some care for aging parents, while others care for grandparents, ill children, and disabled relatives.
Today’s Millennial caregiver spends an average of 21.2 hours a week assisting a disabled loved one, along with working an average of 34.9 hours a week at his or her job (too few hours to qualify for employer-sponsored health insurance). The “typical” Millennial caregiver is 27 years old, works part-time, has a household income below the national medium, and there is an equal chance that a millennial caregiver identifies as male or female – a distinguishing feature for this generation of care providers.
The majority of Millennial caregivers provide assistance without paid help, greatly contributing to the estimated $470 billion worth of unpaid care provided by family caregivers.
Caregiving = Career Suicide
Caregiving responsibilities can destroy careers for many tasked with caring for loved ones.
By the time I was twenty-seven, I’d been forced to hit “pause” on my education and professional pursuits multiple times to provide full-time, uncompensated care for the following:
Like thousands of other caregivers experience, my employers were not accommodating of caregiver schedule needs, and were quick to (legally) terminate me in accordance to the lack of protection provided through Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
Being forced to choose between financially providing your family vs. supporting them through necessary medical treatment is a sickening feeling, especially when our culture fails to recognize caregiving’s destructive effects on one’s career and subsequently fails to provide essential support.
What do millennial say about it?
Recently, I asked Twitter followers “What are some of the biggest challenges Millennial caregivers currently face?”
Here were some of the responses received:
Caring for America's Heroes
While Millennials currently provide care for a variety of different demographics and relations, one of the most unsupported segments of this generation of caregivers are today’s military and veteran caregivers.
Like most wars, the conclusion of the longest war in American history has left many military families to pick-up the pieces of a life ravaged by selfless service for an ungrateful nation. The Global War on Terror resulted in the lowest casualty numbers, but highest number of days in combat and subsequent wounds of war.
For far too many military families, the war isn’t over – it just came home – and the task of caring for the wounded falls on our veteran’s loved ones.
Recent report by the RAND Group indicated the number of millennials providing care for disabled veterans is on a sharp rise, with an over 1.1 million post 9/11 caregivers currently providing care for wounded warriors. This generation of military and veteran caregivers differs greatly from those of previous conflicts, as the majority of post-9/11 caregivers are under the age of 30, have pursued higher education, and care for a veteran with chronic condition with no “recovery” outlook, such as Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).
Thanks to the military’s complete fail at effective medical screening and decades of subpar healthcare through the VA Health systems, the number of veterans diagnosed with crippling war-related maladies (that require daily care) is projected to reach record heights with this generation of warriors.
Note: The VA has a Caregiver Program that veteran's caregiver can apply for; however, it's recently undergone serious budget cuts and it pays a mere fraction of what many spouses were earning before the war to a select few.
Service to Society
Given the immense dedication to caring for previous generations already displayed by Millennials, I’m still amazed at the number of negative generational stereotypes that all too often dominate generational discussion.
“Selfish” and “narcissistic” aren’t exactly adjectives I’d use to describe the dozens of Millennial caregivers I sit side by side with inside packed hospital waiting rooms or caregiver support groups.
Millennial caregivers are not only providing their loved ones an essential service, but they are also serving society at large. By selflessly providing millions of dollars’ worth of unpaid, top quality care to in-need individuals, our country is relieved of the would-be momentous task of caring for the uncared.
However, such sacrificial service comes at a cost – to the caregiver.
Educational opportunities unrealized.
Career aspirations destroyed.
Financial security dismissed as an impossibility.
And don’t even get me started on the negative health effects today’s unsupported caregiver experience…
Our society needs Millennial caregivers, but yet we fail to support this important generational segment in any effectively realized capacity.
Caring for the Long Haul
Millennials’ responsibility as primary caregivers isn’t going away – it’s projected only to increase.
By the year 2033, Bloomberg predicts working-age Americans (Millennials) will support more people over 64 than under 18.
Our society needs Millennials to continue to provide care, but Millennial caregivers need societal support and they aren’t getting any.
Revising FMLA to be more protective of young professionals tasked with caregiver responsibilities, student loan forgiveness programs (like other public service professions) for caregivers experiencing joblessness or underemployment, and awareness across all industries to implement work environment and schedule changes conducive to the needs of today’s caregivers would be a good place to start.
If this generation of caregivers is unable to (financially) continue caring for the millions of disabled, who’s going to provide the estimated $470 billion worth of unpaid care they currently provide?
Will the government?
Will the nonprofit sector?
Let’s recognize the value of uncompensated service caregivers provide to our society, so we won’t have to make up for a $470 B deficit.
About the Author - Hannah Becker
Becker Digital is a full-service Marketing and Public Relations Agency dedicated to empowering mission-driven organizations to reach their goals. We apply our expertise in community development, social media strategy, and public relations to connect organizational clients with today’s always-scrolling online users.