as of 2020, more than one in six Americans was actively responsible for the daily needs and well-being of a loved one. That number only increased during the Covid-19 pandemic, as families took loved ones out of long-term care, adult day centers closed, and the paid caregiving workforce—burned out by greater risk of infection, poor treatment and work conditions, and paltry pay—decreased by as much as 12 percent in certain sectors.
Of those family caregivers, more than three million are members of Gen Z: young people born between 1997 and 2012, many of whom have not yet or just barely crested into adulthood and whose lives have been knocked sideways by a family member’s illness or disability. As our country ages and our paid-care workforce dwindles, the number of family caregivers is expected to grow. Although most caregivers have a job, about a third are forced to cut back on work, and one in nine stops working altogether. That in itself can be catastrophic: A study by MetLife found that the average boomer who leaves the workforce early to care for a family member sacrifices around $300,000 in lifetime earnings and retirement benefits. Although there is no direct research on the financial impact to Gen Z caregivers, one can presume the effect on lifetime earnings, especially for a long-term caregiver, is even more severe.
Marcus became responsible for everything his mother required to get through her day. “I cook for her, clean, do laundry, put her in bed, help her get dressed, help her shower, take her to the bathroom, get her outside, manage her finances, take her to appointments—the list goes on,” he told me. “She can wipe; she just can’t get to the toilet.” He learned that his mother saved almost nothing for retirement, and he gets bills and calls from debt collectors all the time. Yet, in some ways, Marcus sees himself as fortunate: His mom has disability income and Medicaid, which covers the cost of an aide who comes to the house a couple of hours a day and delivery of two meals a day. His sister helps her shower so he doesn’t have to get too involved in what he calls the “feminine side of things.” He has a well-paying job, as a software developer for a bank, that went remote when the pandemic began. Still, there were nights he’d get up four or five times to take her to the bathroom. It was the broken sleep that got him the most. What he didn’t take into consideration, as he made arrangements to care for his mom, was his own mental health. Marcus estimates that there were times he took care of his mom nineteen hours a day, seven days a week—every hour that Medicaid wasn’t paying an aide to keep an eye on her. “You put it on paper and of course you can handle it,” he reasons. “I can handle it,” he repeats, as if willing it to be so—“but not really.”
Featured image taken from the Esquire article: When Maija’s mom first got sick, Maija arranged her own work schedule to drive her mother to and from her shifts at McDonald’s until her mother’s Medicaid benefits kicked in. “I was the main person making sure she was taken care of.”