Justin Hamman says he has the kind of mother who would do anything for her four children when they were growing up. A stay-at-home mom, she was always helping in their classrooms, always encouraging them. She was selfless, he says.
So when Linda Hamman, 64, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s six years ago, Justin, her youngest child, decided to quit the University of Arizona and become her primary caregiver. Now, instead of finishing college, starting a career or passing time hanging out with friends, Justin spends his days attending to his mom.
“At the forefront of my mind is always what my mom is going to be doing or what she’s going to need,” Justin says. He doesn’t regret his decision to put his own life on hold for her. “It definitely makes it easy to sacrifice things for someone like my mom.”
Justin, 26, represents a growing group of caregivers in the U.S. Of the 40 million people providing care to an older or disabled family member, about a quarter are millennials, according to research from the AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving. And they are just as likely to be male as female. That’s a contrast from previous generations, when the caregiver was typically female.
Caring for family members is no longer “women’s work.” Now, “that’s a role that has to be farmed out to whoever is appropriate — and that’s not always the daughter.”
Changing demographics, workplaces and attitudes
The shift reflects changing demographics, a changing workplace and changing attitudes, says Grace Whiting, CEO of the alliance. There are simply fewer younger people to care for the aging population, so people in every demographic group have to pick up the slack. There are more people from Asian and Latin American cultures, where it’s much more common for multiple generations to live together and care for each other. And as more American women work full time, men have taken on more tasks throughout the home, including child—and elder—care.
The assumption that caring for older parents or family members is “women’s work” is gone, says Zach Gassoumis, 36, a research assistant professor in gerontology at the University of Southern California and himself a secondary caregiver for his father. “Now, that’s a role that has to be farmed out to whoever is appropriate—and that’s not always the daughter.”
Justin Hamman says he was the natural choice to take care of his mother. Unlike his siblings, he didn’t yet have a family or a career that would be interrupted. He registered with a caregiving agency and took basic training so he could qualify for Medicaid caregiver payments. Compared with the actual amount of time he spends looking after his mother each week, the 29 ¼ hours of minimum wage salary is a pittance, but he’s grateful that the program exists.
His days follow a pattern. He wakes when his mom does and checks her sleep monitor to try to gauge how the rest of the day should go. He’s focused on her diet and exercise, so he makes her a morning milkshake with supplements and protein that give her a good start on the day. He often takes her to the gym in the morning, then helps her with the basic tasks of getting ready for the day. That part of the morning routine might take 2-3 hours. Then there are meals to prepare, doctors’ visits and looking for ways to bring his mom joy, perhaps by listening to The Beatles, taking a walk or playing with their dog. He’s with her until she goes to sleep at night.
Getting a break from caregiving
In general, Justin estimates he gets out of the house on his own a few hours a week. His siblings help and sometimes take over, so he can get away for a couple of days. Justin knows it’s critical to get some respite; he needs to stay healthy for both himself and his mom.
“It’s a lifestyle,” he says. “It’s not necessarily a job that you can prepare for. It is a job where you have to learn on the spot.”
Indeed, even people with professional medical training find that this type of family caregiving comes with whole new sets of challenges. Andrew Koch, 29, who’s trained as a certified nursing assistant, has helped provide care for his two uncles and grandmother. Andrew and Justin, like millions of millennials, spend a lot of time on YouTube, but Justin and Andrew aren’t just using the video service for entertainment. Andrew estimates he’s spent more than 100 hours watching documentaries, instructional videos and caregiving tutorials on subjects like bathing another person.
While a video “in no way prepares you for the actual contact, it prepares you mentally for what you need to do,” Andrew says. “I think there’s a lot of power in that.”
Millennials have some advantages over older caregivers. They tend to be stronger physically because of their youth and often more tech-savvy—few Boomer caregivers would think to consult YouTube. Yet they also may feel more alone because their peers are on such different tracks. Andrew, who’s getting a masters’ degree in counseling, says caregivers should seek out forums such as CareGiving.com, where there are chatrooms for people all over the world. And The SCAN Foundation is undertaking a major push to connect millennial caregivers with an Instagram campaign.
Such non-traditional approaches to reach out to male millennial caregivers are key, Gassoumis says. “The services that are catered to a 60-year-old woman taking care of her 85-year-old mother—those probably aren’t going to appeal to a 25-year-old male taking care of his parents or grandparents,” Gassoumis says. “He may feel alienated or isolated by those services.”
Understanding the effects on millennials
More research is also needed on millennial caregivers, says Whiting of the National Alliance for Caregiving. “Student debt is an area that is going to have a huge impact on caregiving,” Whiting says. Millennial caregivers spend 27 percent more of their income on caregiving than older generations, according to the Wall Street Journal. And while the stereotypical middle-aged caretaker has a head start on retirement savings, there’s likely to be a reverse impact on younger caretakers who delay college or entering the workforce, Whiting says.
Justin says his work taking care of his mother has encouraged a different side of him, career-wise. He and his brother, Jacob, started a company called ZenJoi that is focused on ways to help people with Alzheimer’s with therapies and exercise based in virtual reality. He’s also working on a project to improve caregiver training. He’s worried that the basic training most caregivers get wouldn’t be good enough if someone else was watching over his mom.
“I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to replace myself,” Justin says. But he feels the rewards of the care he’s giving. “One of my primary goals when I first moved home and kind of throughout this experience is to make sure she’s always happy and joyful. I think she is right now.”
Kristin Jensen is a free-lance writer and editor based in Bethesda, Maryland. She covered health care, politics and breaking news for more than two decades for Bloomberg News, working in both Washington, D.C., and Switzerland.