It may surprise people to know that there are a significant number of young people barely out of their teens who have become caregivers for their grandparents.

Many of these young people were raised by their grandparents. In other instances, the grandchild becomes the primary caregiver because he or she lives closer to the elder than other family members. Sometimes, it's simply because a particular grandchild feels close to the grandparent and has the "caregiver personality."

Whatever the reason that caregiving begins, I hear from a number of young adults who are trying to care for one or more grandparents. Most of them love their grandparent dearly, but they often come up against obstacles that are quite overwhelming for people so young.

One young woman recently wrote about the problem of about her grandfather, because the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) laws won't allow her to do so without the proper legal paperwork, and her grandfather doesn't see the need to have this youngster involved in his clinical care. The problem is that the grandfather doesn't understand that no other family member is available to help him. The granddaughter is working on the problem with the help of a mature mentor, but it can be frightening to be faced with the responsibility of an elder at such a young age.

Why caregiver issues can be compounded for those who are still young

Few people who have fulfilled the caregiver role to an elder would say it's an easy job. However, most caregivers are either adult children who have at least matured into their 40s or 50s, or else they are mature spouses of the ill person. These caregivers have a few decades of living behind them and hopefully have been able to enjoy some young years where their responsibilities, at the most, were to take care of themselves, a spouse and their children.

Grandchildren who care for their elders are often in their late teens or their 20s. Their friends are in college, working odd jobs or starting careers. Their peers have active social lives and often can go out for some fun at a moment's notice.

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Most people of that age don't understand the position of a peer who takes care of a grandparent and likely has little free time. These caregivers may go to school and/or work, but their "extra" time is used for shuttling an elder to and from doctor appointments, monitoring medications and often worrying about the grandparent wandering off somewhere because of dementia. These young people are on the same 24/7 emotional rollercoaster that we who are older find exhausting, but they have a smaller stash of experience behind them, and far fewer understanding peers from whom they can get support.

Isolation from peer groups is often the result. After too many "Sorry, but I have to take care of Grandma" excuses, friends stop calling. After too many classes where caregiver worry overcomes the ability to concentrate, many drop out of school. Trying to navigate the health care system and the challenges of getting an elder qualified for Medicaid is daunting to nearly anyone, but for a young adult it's often overwhelming.

Young caregivers need more support but often don't know how to get it

  1. Mentors can help. If you or your grandparent are connected to a place of worship, you may want to ask if they have people who can help guide you as you walk this caregiving journey.
  2. Go to your state website and type "aging" in the search box. You should be able to find your state's National Family Caregiver Support Program. These people could be very helpful to you as you look for resources.
  3. Contact your local Area Agency on Aging if you have one that covers your community. You can also check with your local Alzheimer's organization and ask if they know of other young caregivers who may want to form a support group. They likely have a social worker who can advise you, as well.
  4. Consider hiring in-home care or having your grandparent live in an assisted living facility. You haven't had time to establish your own life, yet, and you need time to consider and pursue your options.
  5. Most importantly, remember that these are supposed to be your years to follow your dreams and build your future. You love your grandparent and want to give hands-on care. But your grandparent would want you to continue with school or career building opportunities that would rightly take up a great deal of your time and energy. You are also at an age where you should be socially active. Don't let guilt keep you from doing either. With appropriate help, you can continue to assist in your grandparent's care while you still have some semblance of the life a person in his or her teens or 20s should have.