Students in the 9 a.m. public relations class at California State Northridge often rolled in drowsy, with coffee in hand and minutes to spare, but not Andrew Rahal. By that hour, he had prepared breakfast for his grandmother, cleaned the house, and ensured that it was effectively “babyproofed” before running out the door. Sometimes he was late.
That became a problem. His professor had a strict policy: If you are late three times, your grade drops by one letter. After his second tardy, he explained his situation: Rahal is a caregiver for his grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s disease.
“My professor kind of said, ‘Well, you should have thought of that before signing up for this class,’” Rahal said. He ultimately received a D due to chronic lateness and absences.
Rahal, 27, is one of a growing number of young adult family caregivers. About 10 million millennials, those aged 18 to 34, provide care for an elderly or disabled loved one, according to a report by the AARP, and more than a third of those are younger than 25. Their ranks are growing, thanks to a national caregiver shortage that is expected to intensify as baby boomers age and families continue to live apart with fewer adult children available to help. Insurance typically doesn’t cover long-term care, and most families cannot afford to pay for it.
Balancing course loads and caregiving
Advocates say balancing college course loads with caregiving responsibilities puts students at risk of delaying school or dropping out, a risk that’s particularly acute for Hispanic or African American students, who are far more likely than white students to become family caregivers, according to a report by the AARP.
It’s also a challenge that affects student wellness. A 2017 study from the University of Southern Florida found that students who were caregivers had significantly higher symptoms of depression and anxiety than a control group of students who were not caregivers.
“The data are clear that this experience is very stressful,” says Donna Cohen, professor of Child & Family Studies at the University of South Florida and a coauthor of the study. “At this age, you are trying to figure out who you are and what you are good at. Adding this issue of how to be a caregiver…many students do not even know where to go for help with that.”
Yet these students are often invisible to the institutions that serve them.
Of 10 colleges and universities contacted for this story, including the City University of New York system and the California Community Colleges system, none had supports in place beyond traditional counseling to assist students who had caregiving responsibilities.
“When we think of caregivers, we don’t think of the 18-year-old, we don’t think of the 20-year-old,” said Jean Accius, senior vice president of thought leadership and international affairs at AARP.
Young caregivers may be less likely to ask for help, and often reluctant to talk about their challenges, such as needing to leave a three-hour seminar early because their grandparent may be sitting in a dirty diaper, or because someone needs to be home at all times to make sure their aunt does not wander outside and get lost.
Rahal said most of his college friends could not relate to the fact that his first priority was always his grandmother.
“When I would go out with my friends, if Grandma called me on the phone, I would stop; the whole world would stop,” he said. “Some of my friends were not able to understand that.”
“When you’re a caregiver and you are that young, it’s not something you talk about. It’s something you know you just have to do.”
A survey by the Associated Press and the NORC Center of Public Affairs found that “many younger caregivers feel that providing care to a loved one has been a sacrifice.” Six in 10 respondents reported that they felt they had given up something to provide care, including education, free time, personal life or social activities.
Traditional higher education isn’t designed for students with familial responsibilities, according to Lisa Schumacher, who studied the experiences of young student caregivers as a graduate student at the University of Iowa School of Higher Education and Student Affairs.
Schumacher was a student caregiver herself. While working on her dissertation, she cared for her two sons, one of whom had been born premature during the beginning of her Ph.D. program. While faculty members often expect that older graduate students like herself may have responsibilities outside of school, the younger students she interviewed said their needs were often overlooked.
To better assist student caregivers, she encourages faculty to move away from what she refers to as “arbitrary institutional ideals” that don’t have a direct impact on student learning, such as strict attendance policies and inflexible deadlines.
Most colleges and universities offer support to students struggling academically or socially, such as tutors, study groups or on-campus counselors. While some of these services may also be helpful for student caregivers, student caregivers are often unaware of them, Schumacher said.
Raising awareness about student caregivers is critical to helping them connect to such resources, she said.
The conversation could start at freshman orientation, when advisors typically address a host of issues that can affect students’ wellness and academic success as they transition to higher education, Cohen said. And given the higher rates of depression and anxiety for student caregivers, advisers could also train student-support services to ask about family caregiving responsibilities when talking to students who are showing signs of depression, she said.
Not something you talk about
Some external resources are growing. Several caregiving sites, including Caring.com, SeniorAdvice and Teens for Alzheimer’s Awareness, offer scholarships for student caregivers, who often carry a financial burden for caregiving.
College scholarships helped Aleyna Ray, now 30, get an early education degree at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. Ray became a caregiver when she was 9, providing daily care for her single mother, who has multiple sclerosis.
She never told her teachers at Dominion High School in Sterling, Va., very much about it, she recalls. “When you’re a caregiver and you are that young, it’s not something you talk about. It’s something you know you just have to do.”
But she did write about her experience in college scholarship essays. Combined with strong grades, she earned enough in scholarships to cover her tuition and expenses – a huge benefit, since her caregiving responsibilities did not end when she went to college. She moved her mother, and her young cousin who lived with them, to an off-campus apartment so she could continue to be there for them.
Rahal, who is now about a year out from finishing his degree at The New School in New York, has learned to embrace his role as a caregiver despite the challenges. His current program is tailored for adult learners and his professors understand, as he puts it, that “you’re an adult, you have a life and you have things going on.”
While he completes the spring semester in New York City, other family members have stepped up to care for his grandmother. Rahal remains present through phone calls, email, and a Google document he created to help organize his grandmother’s care.