Out of the 40 million adults who act as unpaid caregivers in America, one in four are millennials giving care to family members who are suffering from chronic, disabling or serious health conditions. A family caregiver can be a young adult taking care of a grandparent with a heart condition, a sister caring for a brother with schizophrenia or a parent caring for a child with serious medical issues. Responsibilities can range from duties as simple as trips to the grocery store to around the clock care involving medication administration or complex medical services.

With the growing number of baby boomers reaching 65+ in age, the number of caregivers is expected to become more prevalent in America. With that in mind, it is important to highlight and understand the millennial experience as part of the caregiving population.

“It can be very difficult to feel like you’re on the outside of life looking in,” said 34-year-old Aisha Adkins, from Atlanta, GA, when comparing her life to her peers. Adkins left her full-time job in healthcare to become a full-time caregiver in 2013 when her mother was diagnosed with dementia.

Photo: Aisha Adkins/Ashley Chupp Photography

“Even though I elected to be in this position and I chose this because I love my family, I love my mom dearly and I wouldn’t have it any other way but, there are moments when you’re like gosh you know, what am I missing out on?” she added.

Adkins isn’t alone.

According to a new report from the AARP Public Policy Institute (PPI), Millennials: The Emerging Generation of Family Caregivers, nearly one in five (18 percent) of millennial family caregivers are African American/Black.

“Taking care of those who need you is one of the most important roles we all will play, and we can be called to step up to the task at any age,” said AARP's Senior Vice President of Multicultural Leadership Edna Kane-Williams. “Millennial caregivers face a unique set of circumstances in which they may be in the stages of building their adult lives through new careers, education, or starting families of their own.”

According to Kane-Williams, this is why AARP is committed to providing resources and support to millions of caregivers across the country.

AARP is a leader in providing caregiving resources for those either just beginning their caregiving journey or veteran caregivers, ranging from access to a free comprehensive care guide, support services, webinars, tip sheets, and how-to videos. These tools can help guide you as you look for the right care. For example, learn how to develop a respite care plan, find support groups in your area, or learn about apps that can help you remember daily care tasks.  Like many other millennial caregivers, 31-year-old Brittney Williams from Rochester Hills, Michigan, became a caregiver by circumstance. In 2008, during her junior year of college, her mother was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. When she moved back home in August 2011, she began with simply helping around the house and later became a full-time caregiver when her father found a job.

Photo: Brittney Williams/ Selena Parker, of JMT Printing and Design

Williams said becoming a caregiver happened to her all at once and required her to grow up quickly. She described it as almost reversing roles with her mom. Williams took care of her mom for the last two years of her life. Her mom passed away in 2013 and was buried the day before her 26th birthday.

Not only did Williams have to deal with her own depression; she had to support her siblings and her father through the trauma they were experiencing as well. “There was a point where I was also extremely depressed because of that and there was a point that essentially I realized that I was spending my day watching my mother die,” Williams said.

Thirty-two-year-old Michael Small from Kinston, North Carolina had the experience of caring for both his mother and his aunt. His aunt – who had breast cancer, along with other forms – passed away in 2013. His mom, who had lung cancer, passed away this past May.

Small said with caregiving, he had to have a lot of patience – and had to face the reality that his loved ones were not able to do things as they used to and as a result, were different from whom he knew them to be.

Small, along with other family members took care of his aunt. He described caregiving for her as more family oriented because she was like the rock of the family. He carried out such duties like going to doctor’s appointments.

With his mom he also had to go to doctor’s appointments, but took on larger responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning, changing his mother’s bandages and bathing her. “It took a lot of me,” Small said. “My mom was like my best friend. She was my sister. My ride or die. That was the person I talked to about everything so that hurt even more.”

Photo: Michael Small and his late mother, JoAnn Small

All caretakers agree that the experience of becoming a millennial caregiver comes with its share of challenges. Age is one of them.

Not only do caregivers have to learn how to take on responsibility beyond themselves but assuming the role of a caregiver so young means they often have a different mindset than their peers.

Williams said her depression was tied not only to caring for her ailing mother, but also seeing her friends completing their degrees or getting jobs. To alleviate outside pressures, Adkins suggests staying off of social media to keep from comparing oneself to others.

Sacrifices are another recurring theme amongst millennial caregivers.

“I stopped going out,” Small said. “I couldn’t go out of town with my friends. If I did go I had to make sure somebody was here with her before I even said I was going to go.”

Some millennial caregivers also have to face the challenge of balancing the dual pressures a full-time job and caregiving.

According to the AARP Public Policy Institute (PPI) report, millennials on average, provide more than 20 hours per week in care and 73 percent balance a paid job along with their caregiving duties.

Adkins is not only a full-time caregiver but is also a freelance writer and a business manager for lifestyle website, The Black Expat. She considers both jobs her side hustles and main sources of income.

“In the beginning, it was difficult because I didn’t want to leave my mom,” Small said. Fortunately, during the hardest moments of his mother’s illness, his job understood and was able to work with him. Eventually, he took on a position where his work schedule aligned around his caregiving schedule.

All caregivers admit that self-care is important. They consider it a necessity to avoid the potential of burning out or succumbing to their own health issues.

“When I’m talking to caregivers one of the things that I always say is an analogy of when you’re on a plane and they’re giving you the safety instructions,” Williams said. “You need to put your own mask on before assisting other people, and that’s applicable to life.”

Today, Adkins and Williams both advocate for caregivers because it not only raises awareness, but it also lets other caregivers know that they aren’t alone. Although many don’t discuss it, their advocacy provides people the opportunity to know that there are others who know what they are going through and opens them up to reach out for help.

To challenge folks into dialogue and discussion, Adkins created her platform, Our Turn 2 Care in 2017 to connect adult caregivers with resources and each other.

“For black millennial caregivers I think that some of the ways that we talk about what strong looks like means I don't need anybody else to help me while I’m helping somebody and that’s how burnout happens,” says Williams. “So I’m very much into helping caregivers to get through what I was able to make it through.”

Each person interviewed admits that caregiving has changed them.

For Adkins, it has deeply affected the way she views marriage and relationships. “I’ve witnessed my parents – who are high school sweethearts and will have been married for 43 years this fall – keep every single vow,” Adkins said.

“No one ever expects their spouse to become so ill. There are some couples, especially younger couples, who bail at the first sign of trouble when their marriage starts getting unsexy. I understand now what a marriage commitment really looks like and I know the characteristics to look for in whoever I marry. Someone who really will be with me in sickness and in health.”

Williams said her outlook for caring for others has grown and shifted a lot based on her experience. As a result of caregiving, she has acquired a calmer spirit and is less likely to get worked up about things that are inconsequential.

“I was always a very caring person, but I think I’m much more empathetic to others now,” Williams said. “I also tend to be more mindful of what someone might be going through that I have no idea about.”

For Small, taking care of his aunt and mom helped him mature more quickly than his peers. Seeing his mother in her last moments without complaint motivates and helps him to this day. “I can’t imagine me knowing that I’m going to die and still out here smiling and still carrying on,” Small said. “I never saw any fear. No giving up. None of that. That helps and builds your strength.”

Seeing the variances and overlaps in the experiences of these three millennials highlight the unique experience our generation faces as our population ages. Ultimately, understanding caregivers and their roles can help our community figure out how to help and support them.

“I just want folks to try to just cherish the time that they have and to realize that there’s no shame in caregiving,” Adkins said. “It’s something honorable, but also to realize that you know you are not necessarily an expert. You’re a human being. You’re going to make mistakes. Every day is not going to be perfect, but you know you’re doing a good thing and it’s always okay to ask for help.”

To find out more about millennials and caregiving in the U.S. please visit: AARP.org/Caregiving/.

This piece is sponsored by AARP California