For Millennials Making Their Way, a Detour: To Caregiving

For Millennials Making Their Way, a Detour: To Caregiving

In the summer of 2017, soon after starting a new job, Ariel Brandt Lautman took her two young children to Denver to visit her mother. This wasn’t purely a social call. Her mother’s memory had been deteriorating for several years, and Ms. Brandt Lautman, who lives in Silver Spring, Md., needed to plan for her care.

Ms. Brandt Lautman was 35 at the time, considerably younger than the typical caregiver. Each day was a juggling act. She worked from sunrise to 2 p.m., taking a break to drive her 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter to camp. In the afternoons, she took her mother to doctors, including one who diagnosed early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. A lawyer drew up papers that gave Ms. Brandt Lautman the authority to manage her mother’s finances and to make decisions regarding her health care.

“I think the hardest part was realizing I wouldn’t get to have an adult relationship with my mom,” Ms. Brandt Lautman said. “She would never really get to know my kids, to see me as a mother.” Her mother, Janet Brandt, who is divorced and now 68, was living with her boyfriend, but Ms. Brandt Lautman did not believe she could depend on him to watch over her mother for the long term.

The summer visit was one of several trips to Denver. When she was home, Ms. Brandt Lautman dealt with insurance companies, filed paperwork and coordinated her mother’s medical visits with relatives in Denver. She turned to Jewish Family Service of Colorado for a care manager, who checked in on Ms. Brandt regularly.

Last December, when she was pregnant with her third child, Ms. Brandt Lautman moved her mother into a memory care facility near her own home. The months before and soon after the move were particularly stressful, she said.

“I had a feeling like I was never doing my best,” she said. “I wasn’t being the best mom, the best partner to my husband, the best employee or the best caretaker to my mom because I was being pulled in so many different directions.” Her younger brother, who lives in San Francisco, and her uncle in Denver handled the logistics of the move.

Now that her mother lives nearby, life is less frenetic. She said help from her husband, Dan, and her Denver relatives, along with her employer’s flexible family policy, enabled her to balance caregiving, work and children.

“I can’t fathom how people make this happen without a support system,” she said. “There is not a day that I don’t acknowledge how incredibly fortunate I am.”

For baby boomers who fretted about every aspect of their children’s lives, here’s another worry for the list: Their children may become their caregivers while also handling the pressures of young adulthood. One-fourth of the 40 million caregivers in the United States are millennials, ranging from their early 20s to late 30s, according to a report by the AARP Public Policy Institute.

These caregivers are members of what an expert on aging, Gretchen Alkema, calls the panini generation: “They are feeling the heat, and they are feeling pressed.”

They differ from the typical middle-aged caregiver in the so-called sandwich generation, she said.

“Millennials are just starting out — they are building their careers and creating their families,” said Dr. Alkema, vice president of policy and communications at the SCAN Foundation, which provides grants for aging-related projects. Their responsibilities may make it difficult for them to gain a toehold on the economic ladder, she said.

A change in family structure is one reason for the large number of millennial caregivers, Dr. Alkema said. “Boomers had their kids at a later stage of their life than their own parents, and they had fewer children to provide the care,” she said.

Also, many boomers are divorced and single, leaving caregiving to their children rather than to a spouse, she said. And those younger caregivers are more likely than older caregivers to be men, according to a SCAN-financed poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Younger caregivers spend an average of 21 hours a week on those tasks, usually for a parent, grandparent or close friend, according to AARP. And more than half perform such difficult jobs as helping someone bathe or use the toilet and preparing injections.

The long-term consequences can be severe, said Susan Reinhard, senior vice president of AARP and the director of its Public Policy Institute. During several dinners the institute held last year, many millennial caregivers said their family responsibilities limited their choices when it came to employment and children, she said.

“I call it ‘life interrupted,’” Dr. Reinhard said. “They were saying things like, ‘I’m not sure I can get married.’ ‘I don’t know if I can have a baby.’ ‘I don’t know what career I can pursue.’”

Dr. Reinhard warned that caregivers who cut back on work at such an early stage of their careers ran the risk of lower lifetime wealth, retirement savings and Social Security benefits.

“Millennials may feel they have family obligations, but they have obligations to themselves,” she said.

Ms. Brandt Lautman — whose mother cared for her own mother, who also had early-onset Alzheimer’s — started a full-time job in 2017 as director of information systems at a national association representing public health agencies. She had been a technology consultant.

“I took the approach that she would not want me to put my family at any financial risk to care for her,” she said.

Even when millennial caregivers work full time (and a majority do), they are more likely than older caregivers to get warnings about performance and attendance, to be turned down for promotions and to get fired, AARP found.

Kate Klosterman was in college two hours from her home in Ramsey, Minn., when her grandmother was given a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease in 2009 and started lashing out violently, she said. Her grandmother lived with her husband, and Ms. Klosterman’s mother lived nearby. But she said she was the only one in the family who could calm her grandmother down.

When Ms. Klosterman visited her parents on weekends and during the summer, she said, “I would have to stop what I was doing and go to Grandma’s house and take her out.”

She recalled several restaurant outings when her grandmother had “accidents.” “I had to strip her down in the bathroom and clean her up,” she said. “That was rough.”

After her sophomore year, Ms. Klosterman took a break from college and worked at a retail chain. Two or three times a week, her mother would ask her to pick up her grandmother. Ms. Klosterman would either call in sick or leave work. She was eventually fired for too many absences, said Ms. Klosterman, 30, who is a project specialist at the University of Minnesota and lives in Coon Rapids, Minn.

Ms. Klosterman’s grandmother died in 2011. When her grandfather received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease a year later, her mother placed him in a nursing home.

Like many millennial caregivers, Ms. Brandt Lautman was not familiar with the web of services for older people with long-term-care needs. At her age, she said, “it never would have occurred to me that I would need AARP.” She turned to older relatives in Denver for suggestions.

Caregiving information is plentiful online, but to get started, young caregivers — or their parents, if they are able — should seek professional advice, experts say.

Social workers and nurses at hospitals and medical practices who are overseeing a loved one’s care could suggest appropriate local services. A young caregiver could turn to a geriatric care manager, who tailors options to a person’s specific needs. These experts typically charge $175 for an initial consultation and about $75 an hour to monitor care, according to an AARP survey.

In addition to drawing up financial and health care powers of attorney, an elder-law lawyer could figure out if a parent qualifies for government-paid home aides, adult day care, assisted living and other services. When a person’s financial assets drop to a certain level, Medicaid generally picks up the tab, though state laws differ.

Besides seeking professional advice, caregivers can look to an Area Agency on Aging, a public or nonprofit agency that connects caregivers to respite care, transportation, home care and professional advisers. Local chapters of disease-specific organizations often provide information on specialists, support groups and programs. AARP offers state-by-state resource guides and information on many aspects of caregiving.

Caregiving can be an isolating experience no matter the age, but younger caregivers report higher levels of loneliness than older ones.

“They think that this is only happening to them,” Dr. Alkema said. “They don’t know that a friend they just met is walking down the caregiving road, too.”

While most caregiver support groups are geared to older adults, some millennials are tapping into their own circles. Ms. Brandt Lautman sometimes visits an online video support group for younger caregivers sponsored by her Alzheimer’s Association chapter.

Ms. Klosterman joined the Alzheimer’s Association’s local Young Champions, an advocacy and fund-raising group of young professionals. After she shared her experience on Facebook, she said, “a high school acquaintance reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, my grandmother has Alzheimer’s and I’m having a hard time.’”

Baby boomer parents can ease the burden for their children before caregiving needs arise. Experts suggest that parents draw up financial and health care powers of attorney, build a network of friends and neighbors who can help, and set aside money for care. They also should talk with their children about their financial resources and the type of care they would prefer.

Ms. Brandt Lautman said she wished her mother had discussed her preferences years ago. With early-onset dementia running in her family, Ms. Brandt Lautman is already putting financial and health care plans together so that her husband and children are prepared.

“My husband does not want to have this conversation,” she said. “But I want to have it now.”

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