A new generation of young people is stepping up to help their aging and ill family members. Although the Caregiving in the U.S. 2020 report found that the average age of family caregivers (49.2 years old) remains essentially unchanged since the last report in 2015, the data also reveal that 24 percent of informal caregivers are between the ages of 18 and 34. Millennials and members of Generation Z are aging into the caregiving role. While most caregivers ages 18 to 49 are caring for a parent or in-law, 17 percent report taking care of grandparents or grandparents-in-law.

Why Are More Grandchildren Caring for Grandparents?

Family and household composition have changed a great deal over recent decades. Many of these young caregivers have lived with or been raised by their grandparents. For example, a 2021 report published by Generations United found that more than one in four Americans (26 percent) are living in a household with 3 or more generations. In other instances, a grandchild becomes the primary caregiver because he or she lives nearer to the elder than other family members. Sometimes, it’s simply because a particular grandchild feels close to the grandparent and has the so-called “caregiver personality.”

There are countless factors that influence why a grandchild might become the primary caregiver for one or both grandparents, but the underlying reason for this is usually that the elder’s own adult children are not willing, able or alive to assume this role.

Younger Caregivers Face Significant Challenges

Few people with first-hand experience caring for an elder would describe it as an easy job. But, consider the fact that most family caregivers are age 50 or older. They were probably able to enjoy their teenage and early adult years, eventually joining the workforce, learning to fend for themselves, getting married and raising children. What I’m trying to convey is that the average family caregiver has a few decades’ worth of knowledge, adult living and real-world experience under their belt.

Undoubtedly, many younger caregivers are mature for their age, but they are also still relatively green across the board. Most aren’t intimately familiar with the various indignities that come with getting older. They aren’t aware of the importance of legal and financial planning for the future or what documents they’ll need to help manage an elder’s care. It’s unlikely they understand how to navigate our complex health care system or the intricacies of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, VA benefits and other important government programs for seniors.

Middle-aged caregivers can often look to their established network of friends, colleagues or other professionals like attorneys, physicians or financial advisors for guidance in these matters and referrals to helpful resources. Most of these people are likely to have some sort of personal caregiving experience or expertise that relates to elder care.

The same cannot be said for caregivers in their 20s. Their friends are in college, working odd jobs or starting careers. They have active social lives and can go out for some fun at a moment’s notice. Perhaps they’re even getting married, settling down and starting families. Caregiving, however, probably isn’t even on their radar at this young age.

A grandchild who is taking care of Grandma and/or Grandpa may also be juggling school, work or both. Unlike their peers, though, any “extra” time they have is spent managing medications, assisting with activities of daily living (ADLs), driving to doctor’s appointments, cooking meals, doing laundry and spending time with their grandparent(s). These young people are on the same 24/7 emotional rollercoaster that we older caregivers find so exhausting, but they have far fewer understanding peers from whom they can get support.

After too many “Sorry, but I have to take care of Grandma” excuses, friends stop calling. After too many instances where caregiving interferes with attendance and the ability to concentrate, many drop out of school or struggle to hold a job. These young people who are just starting out and supposed to be building a strong foundation for the rest of their lives are instead making life-altering sacrifices for those they love.

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Isolation is often the result. Feelings of loneliness are associated with higher levels of emotional stress and physical strain, leaving younger caregivers particularly vulnerable to caregiver burnout. Respite care is touted as the solution for those who are struggling to balance caregiving responsibilities and self-care. However, grandchildren often take on this role because their grandparents have few or no other family members to rely on and refuse to consider other sources of support. In fact, more than half (58 percent) of Generation X caregivers report feeling they had no choice in assuming this responsibility.

When it comes to managing a grandparent’s care, younger caregivers may also experience more pushback and less cooperation. While Grandma or Grandpa may be grateful for the daily assistance and company a grandchild provides, they might not see the validity of a youngster’s involvement in important matters like legal and financial planning and health care decisions. Elders are notorious for disregarding their adult children’s requests and suggestions to engage in estate planning, give up the car keys or go to the doctor. Taking directives from someone who is two generations younger typically does not go over well either. It can be incredibly frustrating for a family caregiver of any age to shoulder such a heavy burden but have little or no actual say in care decisions that directly affect their lives and ability to help their loved ones.

Hiring in-home care, taking a grandparent to adult day care, or encouraging them to move to a senior living facility are all options that can help a grandchild achieve a better balance in life, but they face obstacles here, too. Their elder may not have the resources to cover these costs or they may flatly refuse to pay for their own care. This leaves a grandchild with a very difficult choice: either muddle through without any help or find a way to cover these costs themselves. Young adults who are relatively new to the workforce typically don’t have savings that they can fall back on, and diverting income to pay for respite care can have a detrimental impact on their financial situation. Ask any middle-age caregiver—it can take years to get back on track after covering these costs for a loved one. Many never fully recover enough to plan financially for their own retirement and long-term care.

Resources for Grandchildren Taking Care of Elderly Grandparents

As the provision of long-term care increasingly shifts from residential facilities to home and community based care, supportive services become more and more important for seniors and family caregivers of all ages. The following resources can help younger caregivers protect their physical, mental, social and financial health and find ways of supporting their grandparents without jeopardizing their futures.

  1. Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs)

    AAAs provide information, assistance and referrals to community services for seniors, individuals with disabilities and family caregivers.
  2. Caregiver Support Groups

    Whether in person or online, participating in a caregiver support group is an excellent way to connect with other people who understand the unique challenges you’re facing, get advice, and discover new elder care resources, products and solutions. The Caregiver Forum even has a dedicated section for questions and discussions about caring for grandparents.
  3. Government Resources

    There are countless federal, state and local programs available to seniors and family caregivers. Even benefits or services that aren’t directly related to elder care can reduce financial strain and help a caregiver carve out time for respite.
  4. Disease-Specific Nonprofit Organizations

    An elder’s unique health conditions have a significant impact on the type of care and assistance they require. Organizations like the Alzheimer’s Association, the American Cancer Society and the Parkinson’s Foundation are valuable sources of information and support pertaining to these specific medical issues.
  5. Books on Caregiving

    If you’re looking for a new perspective on aging, tips for communicating with elders, advice on setting boundaries or valuable insights on dementia care, pick up one of these acclaimed books for caregivers.
  6. Explore Respite Care Options

    From in-home care to nursing homes, learn about the different types of elder care available to support your grandparent and help you enjoy a break from caregiving.

One’s youth should be spent following dreams, gaining experience, cultivating friendships and building a future. Whether you volunteered for this role or feel thrust into taking care of your grandparent(s), it’s important to remember that your needs and goals matter, too. Grandma and/or grandpa already got to enjoy this crucial time in their life and should want you to do the same. Don’t let guilt, embarrassment or fear prevent you from asking for help. With the right resources and assistance, you can learn to balance caregiving with your own life.