Growing up in the early 2000s, I thought my older brother and I were the only millennials with a family caregiving role. When I was eleven years old, my older brother dropped out of his sophomore year in college to take care of my mother. She had undergone a spinal surgery that went horribly wrong, leaving her in debilitating chronic pain. As a young millennial, my brother became responsible for my mother’s medical care and our household finances. With a seven year age difference between us, my brother’s caregiving role also included looking after me, making sure that I made it to school each day, dressed and fed. My brother acted as the primary caregiver in our home, sacrificing his own dreams that I might be able to pursue mine. As my mother never fully recovered from her surgery, his caregiving role continues to this day.
In the nearly two decades of our caregiving journey, I had never heard of the term “millennial caregiver”. Moreover, I didn’t even see myself as a caregiver until I came across the work of my now-PhD supervisor Dr. Saul Becker in England. His work with children and young adults who provide unpaid care in their families has spanned decades and has shaped the creation of legislative policy and supportive programs in the United Kingdom. Called “young carers” in the UK, I finally discovered there were other young people with family experiences similar to mine. My brother and I weren’t alone.
Who are “Millennial Caregivers”?
The latest figures released 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. There is an equal chance that a millennial caregiver identifies as male or female. According to the NAC and AARP report, the “typical” millennial caregiver is 27 years old and provides support for a parent or grandparent with a physical condition requiring care. Millennials may also provide care for spouses, siblings, close family friends, and their own children. The care recipient may have care needs related to a mental illness, substance abuse issue, developmental or learning disability, HIV/AIDS diagnosis, or an age-related disease such as dementia or Alzheimer’s. In addition, millennials are increasingly providing care for their loved ones with injuries sustained in military service (e.g., traumatic brain injuries).
Caregiving can look very different across families. The types of tasks caregivers may perform include physical care such as lifting a person into bed, personal care (showering, dressing), and administering medicines. They may also be responsible for grocery shopping, household bill payment, cleaning, and cooking. Millennial caregivers who also look after their siblings can be found helping with homework or driving them to and from school. For some families, the millennial caregiver provides emotional support, serving as the voice of reason or the shoulder to cry on during times of stress.
Are Millennials Less Inclined to Identify as Caregivers?
In the interviews that I’ve conducted around the country, millennials are sometimes hesitant to label themselves as caregivers. They may not feel that the help they provide to their families “counts as caregiving” because the time devoted to care-related duties amounts to a “few hours a week”, or because another family member also provides care in the home. Those who live away from their family are even more reluctant to identify as caregivers, saying that returning to the family home on the weekends or on holiday breaks, i.e., “caring at a distance”, somehow reduces their role as a caregiver. In addition, the types of care millennials provide also plays a significant factor into how they view themselves: those who provide emotional support or help care for siblings may feel disqualified from the title of caregiver.
The issue of self- identification for millennial caregivers has reverberating consequences, namely, how they are perceived by society at large. When millennials disqualify themselves from the title of caregiver, the way we view their important role in the family is at risk for demotion. On a macro-level, millennial caregivers are essential participants in our nation’s health care system. They help contribute to the estimated $470 billion worth of unpaid care provided by family caregivers, helping to relieve the burden on our health care system. It is essential that millennial caregivers recognize their significant value in their individual families but also society at large.
Why Do Millennial Caregivers Need Attention in Public Policy?
The current discourse around caregiving is often centered around the aging Baby Boomer population and their caregiving needs. A “typical” caregiver in the minds of many people is someone in their 40s or 50s looking after an aging parent. The widely accepted view of caregiving is narrowly focused, leading people to think that care is only provided for elderly family members or those with certain physical health conditions. Furthermore, a common misconception is that caregiving tasks only consist of mobility aid, such as lifting a person or helping a person walk. The costs of such a narrow characterization of caregiving are high. Millennial caregivers remain overlooked in public policy, particularly with regards to respite care funding. National advocacy organizations and community support groups tend to focus on the needs of older caregivers, neglecting to address the realities facing caregivers in college or those without a stable career. Similar to older caregivers, millennial caregivers are at risk for social isolation, particularly when the demands of caregiving are high and time-consuming. Without supportive programs that directly attend to their distinctive needs, millennial caregivers can feel lonely, isolated, and forgotten.
How Can We Help Millennial Caregivers?
- Ease the financial burden
- Increased funding on a national and state level for millennial caregiver specific services, e.g., respite care and support groups
- Grants and scholarships for millennial caregivers for college
- Monthly stipend given directly to millennial caregivers
- Where is this already happening? The UK provides a weekly allowance of £62.10 (about $90) to caregivers providing care for 35 hours a week or more. It’s not a huge amount but can help take some of the financial strain off these caregivers.
- Educational training for social workers, counselors, teachers, and medical personnel on identifying millennial caregivers and supporting their needs
- National caregiving advocacy groups must increase their recognition of millennial caregivers and include millennial caregivers in their political lobbying.
We need a more inclusive conversation about caregiving. Caregivers of all ages are vital members of society and deserve our recognition and support. Millennial caregivers do exist and are not rare. We must champion their cause and direct our attention to addressing their needs in policy, services, and funding. The way we view caregiving must also broaden in scope, ensuring that those who “care at a distance” or provide care in conjunction with other family members feel valued. Every act of caregiving is important. By expanding our conversation about caregiving, we lift up the millennial caregiver to a place of appreciation.
This article was previously published at the website What Millennials Want.