This Is The Biggest Life Event That Millennials Don’t See Coming

Ann Brenoff’s “On The Fly” is a weekly column about navigating growing older ― and a few other things.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news here, but you are about to get sucked into a hellhole unlike anything you’ve ever previously imagined. It will devastate you, leave you emotionally spent, make you physically ill and resentful at times. It could totally derail your career or force you to dip into your retirement savings ― and then one day it will abruptly end and leave you in a state of deep grief. Oh, and the government doesn’t really give a damn about any of this, so you are pretty much on your own. 

What is this nightmare scenario? You are about to become my generation’s caregivers

That’s right. A recently released AARP report, “Millennials: The Emerging Generation of Family Caregivers,” points the finger squarely at you. It notes that your caregiving responsibilities are just starting to rev up, with about 1 in 4 of you already putting in an extra 21 hours a week taking care of us. To be clear, that is 21 unpaid hours ― while you work at your real jobs and/or care for your own families at the same time.

Close to half of you will be helping a parent or a parent-in-law. In most cases (65 percent), it will be your mother, said AARP. About 76 percent of the people cared for by millennial family members are 50 or older, and the average care recipient is 60 years old. The average care recipient helped by a grandchild is 77 years old. And more than half of millennial family caregivers (51 percent) are the sole caregiver, alone in their duties. 

You can expect this trend to continue. As more people like me go not-so-gently into our elder years, more of you will be asked to step up and take care of us. Why? U.S. public policy has lagged woefully behind today’s reality that 10,000 baby boomers a day are turning 65. And that burden is headed straight to your shoulders.

So let’s start with what caregiving entails. My generation already knows this, because we’ve served as our own parents’ and spouse’s caregivers, but here’s the CliffsNotes version for you.

It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it.

Family caregivers today do many of the same things that nurses do, and then some. And much of it isn’t pretty. 

You can look forward to changing adult diapers (just don’t dare try to claim those as a caregiving expense!), giving medications, installing safety bars, taping down rugs and telling your grandmother who helped raise you that she can’t drive anymore while she sobs and asks you what your name is. Again.

You will be changing catheters and testing blood and hooking up your dad to a home dialysis machine because visiting health aides don’t come every day. Family caregivers do. You will sometimes forget to dispose of your “sharps” properly and someone will call you on it. 

You will make multiple trips a week driving your loved one to doctors, waste hours in line at the pharmacy and spend hours on the phone with insurance providers all the while trying to juggle your own life, family and job. You will blow your stack, cry yourself to sleep and endure days when you don’t even have time to shower. Your own health will suffer. The stress of trying to work while doing all this will feel unbearable at times, especially if you’re doing it without help. Impatience may become your middle name.

You not only don’t get paid; it will cost you.

You are a godsend ― that’s what everyone will tell you. After all, the work done by the nation’s family caregivers would cost about $642 billion a year if it were done by paid skilled nurses, according to the Rand Corp. Meanwhile, Rand put the annual income lost by family caregivers for the elderly at $522 billion. That was in 2014, so you can mentally adjust for inflation.

It’s staggering. Bear in mind: Family caregivers labor free of charge, contributing their time, their energy and often their own well-being. You will join their ranks out of love, obligation, guilt ― and for one other important reason: You’ll have no choice.

And it will cost you in yet another way. Caregivers’ out-of-pocket costs were nearly 20 percent of their annual income, AARP said in its 2016 report, with average annual spending of $6,954.

To cover the extra expense, AARP notes, many family caregivers cut back on their own spending. They reduce, if not stop, saving for retirement altogether. They don’t eat out or take vacations. And many have dipped into personal or retirement savings.

The damage to caregivers is long-lasting.

Many caregivers find their health adversely affected. A UCLA Center for Health Policy Research survey found that nearly one-third of the estimated 3 million-plus informal caregivers in California reported emotional stress so severe it disrupted their lives. “Caregiver syndrome” is the popular name for the anger, guilt and exhaustion that come from providing unrelenting care for a chronically ill loved one. 

As you will quickly find out for yourself, respite care ― an outsider to come in and give you a break once in a while ―  is expensive and not always available. 

Caregiving can impact your health, but what it does to your career is something awful times two. Caregivers miss days of work, don’t apply for or accept promotions, and sometimes just drop out of the paid workforce altogether to care for their loved ones. 

Lost wages and benefits average $303,880 over the lifetimes of people 50 and older who stop working to care for a parent, according to a National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine report. To add insult to that injury, a lower earnings history means reduced Social Security payments when you become eligible.

Government could help a lot but doesn’t.

That National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine report provides a very sobering look at the state of family caregiving in the U.S. It notes that caregivers are cracking under the strain, and although things could be done to support them, nobody is really paying attention.

What could be done to ease the almost certain misery you’re headed for? How about tax credits for caregiving or reimbursement for caregiving expenses? Why not offer Social Security credits so that caregivers don’t miss out down the road? And maybe pass paid family leave to take care of an elderly loved one, so that after you’ve spent the night dealing with Grandpa’s tendency to rage after sunset, you don’t have to report to work at 9 a.m. the next day?

P.S. Welcome to the club.

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