En español | For one out of 12 caregivers, the person they're taking to doctor appointments, arranging meals for and taking calls from during the workday isn't Mom or Dad — it's Grandma or Grandpa.
Eight percent of all caregivers over the age of 18 are grandchildren, according to the report "Caregiving in the U.S. 2009," funded by the National Alliance for Caregiving in collaboration with AARP and the MetLife Foundation. That means 5.3 million out of the nation's 65.7 million caregivers are grandchildren who care for their grandparents.
That doesn't surprise Nancy Orel, director of the Gerontology Program at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. In fact, says Orel, grandchildren as young as 7 are being relied upon to "watch Grandma," and take some of the physical and financial strain off the primary caregivers — their parents.
Caregiving puts plans on hold
Watching Grandma can build confidence and empathy in children, says Orel. But when twenty- and thirtysomethings have to juggle caregiving with starting their own lives as adults, the latter can suffer. It's not at all uncommon for them to delay education, careers, romantic relationships and parenthood in order to care for grandparents, says Christine Fruhauf, who with Orel has extensively studied the grandchild-as-caregiver phenomenon.
"Young adults might delay going to college," says Fruhauf, associate professor at the Colorado State University Department of Human Development and Family Studies. "Their career development and financial stability is delayed. They don't have time to date. I've interviewed grandchildren who take Grandma along on dates because that's the only way they can go. Friendships can suffer."
Lisa DuVal, 36, knows about the impact of caregiving. She told AARP in a Twitter exchange how she helps care for her 89-year-old grandmother with dementia. She has had to quit her job as a social worker and now worries about how her hiatus from the workforce will impact her future career prospects. Because of her grandmother's condition and her high risk of falls, she cannot be left alone, so DuVal and her mother split caregiving duties. DuVal's mother, who is 62, is also dealing with her own health issues and relies heavily on DuVal to assist with the caregiving. The demands are great, and there's no money to pay for paid help.
"Sometimes I get stressed out and need a break," says DuVal. "But if I take a day or two away, I can go back and care for her some more."
More grandchild caregivers are coming
Consider that people age 85-plus are the fastest growing segment (PDF) of the population, with their number expected to increase by about 50 percent by 2030 and triple by 2050, when there will be an estimated 19 million "oldest old."
Caregivers like Megan Gavin, 31, of Farmington, Conn., a Ph.D. candidate caring for her 102-year-old grandfather, will become more common. Gavin spends two weekends a month with John H. Rees, who cannot be left alone because of his frailty. But the family also cannot afford paid around-the-clock care. So Gavin, her mother and her aunt care for Rees.
While Gavin doesn't relish spending Saturday nights watching Suze Orman with her grandfather when she could be out with her peers, she feels blessed to be able to give back to a grandparent.
"This experience has given me so many ideas, like a 'care house' where my mother and her friends will live and my friends and I will pool our resources," says Gavin. "Our parents are going to need more care and assistance than we as a nation recognize."