Millennial Caregivers: How Gen Y is Stepping Up

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By: Vanessa Steil, BPCA

As millennials, we don’t often think of things like long-term care or having to make end-of-life decisions. That is, unless you are one of the more than 10 million of us who find ourselves being a caregiver to a loved one. 

I first added the job of caregiver to my resume when I was in my early twenties. I had recently graduated from college when I began taking my grandmother grocery shopping and to doctor’s’ appointments.

Vanessa comforting her grandmother during one of her ER visits.

As a breast cancer survivor, she had frequent follow-ups with her care team and was vigilant about her health. Then, in 2014, she was diagnosed with breast cancer for a second time, and my duties expanded to that of a family caregiver and nurse. After undergoing a second mastectomy, my grandmother gave up driving completely and relied on me and my visits for her social outings. 

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, my grandmother, who was already relatively home-bound, became even more so. Her weekly trips to the grocery store ceased and she visited her doctors virtually. It was during this time that I began to notice a shift in my grandmother’s cognitive skills. The once spry 93-year-old was slowing down, becoming more forgetful, and complaining about pain. 

By the fall of 2021, it was clear that she could no longer live on her own. But I never imagined the reality of what was ahead of us. 

I couldn’t fathom how a visit to the emergency room would land my grandmother in the hospital for a week-long stay, followed by a stint in a sub-acute rehabilitation facility where she would fall and break her hip on night one, get hip surgery, have another hospital stay, be transferred to a different sub-acute rehabilitation facility, and finally move into long-term care, where she now resides. 

This journey is similar to how many find their way into long-term care settings and how their loved ones become caregivers. 

Vanessa is a Board Certified Patient Advocate (BPCA) who works tirelessly to help provide support and resources to other family caregivers around the country, including as Co-Founder of The Hospital Bar.

What Are the Responsibilities of a Caregiver?

It has been a long road to get to this point with my grandmother. But for caregivers, the job doesn’t end with just the care of your loved one.

Over the past year, I’ve had to sell my grandmother’s condo to pay for her live in caregiver cost, hire an elder care attorney, and stay in daily communication with the nursing staff at her facility.

Combined with leaving a full-time job to start my own company and going to see her every night to feed her dinner, you might wonder who cares for caregivers? 

It is a truism that “you can’t pour from an empty cup.” If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of anyone else.

From having a friend that you can call when you are feeling overwhelmed to someone who can provide respite care for you, these support systems are lifelines for family caregivers. And, if you’re not sure how to support a family caregiver, just ask. Often, family caregivers don’t know what tasks they could use help with or they are reluctant to ask in the first place. 

I had a former co-worker who began making soup for my grandmother, who at the time was having difficulties swallowing and needed to eat a special diet. For me as a caregiver, this gesture was a game-changer, as it made my life easier and it provided my grandmother with a lot of joy. 

Tips to Help Caregivers Practice Self-Care

As my grandmother continues to decline and my caregiving role becomes more about providing her with comfort at the end of her life, I find myself relying more on the self-care rituals I have acquired. Self-care isn’t selfish, and when you are dealing with stressful situations, practicing self-care will make you a better caregiver.

Put a meeting with yourself on your calendar: Being a caregiver often means putting other people ahead of yourself. I’ve found putting time on my calendar to take a sanity stroll (as I call my daily walks), to go horseback riding (which I’ve done since childhood and it always gives me a sense of calm), or to get a cup of coffee (at one of my favorite local coffee shops), is a great way to take time out of my day for myself and to do something I enjoy. Then, when I return to my caregiving duties, I feel a bit more centered, which is helpful not only to myself but also to my grandmother.

Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’: Caregiving is a full-time job, and if you already work a full-time job, take care of a family, or have health issues of your own that require your attention, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Learning to prioritize what’s important, taking breaks when you need them, and saying ‘no’ to things that are outside of your bandwidth are critical skills for caregivers.

Surround yourself with supportive people: In the interest of full disclosure, I have lost friends as a caregiver, especially as my priorities have shifted from making plans to do something fun to planning to take care of my mental and physical well-being. Life as a caregiver can often be isolating and lonely, as so many of the responsibilities fall to you. But a supportive family or friend group can help ease those feelings. 

From having a friend that you can call when you are feeling overwhelmed to someone who can provide respite care for you, these support systems are lifelines for caregivers. And, if you’re not sure how to support a caregiver, just ask. Often, caregivers don’t know what tasks they could use help with or they are reluctant to ask in the first place. 

I had a former co-worker who began making soup for my grandmother, who at the time was having difficulties swallowing and needed to eat a special diet. For me as a caregiver, this gesture was a game-changer, as it made my life easier and it provided my grandmother with a lot of joy. 

As my grandmother continues to decline and my caregiving role becomes more about providing her with comfort at the end of her life, I find myself relying more on the self-care rituals I have acquired. Self-care isn’t selfish, and when you are dealing with stressful situations, practicing self-care will make you a better caregiver.

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