Who’s taking care of California’s seniors? Probably a millennial, survey says

Caregiver Shay Jackson, 32, right, reads the Bible with her grandmother Audrey Strong, 79, who suffers from lung cancer.
Caregiver Shay Jackson, 32, right, reads the Bible with her grandmother Audrey Strong, 79, who suffers from lung cancer. rbyer@sacbee.com

Shay Jackson starts her day at 4 a.m, seeking the early morning “me time” with prayer and Bible study before chaos ensues.

Before heading to her state job, there’s breakfast to be made for her children, ages 7 and 3. Her grandmother, 79-year-old Audrey Strong, is undergoing treatment for lung cancer and needs assistance getting dressed. Jackson, 32, tag-teams the responsibilities with her husband, Chris Jackson, who gets the children to school in the morning and works afternoons.

Even after the day’s physical duties are complete, Jackson said, her “mind is always running,” about treatment options for Strong or the therapy needed for her children, who have speech delays.

“I would say it’s extremely overwhelming,” the North Natomas resident said. “A lot of times it’s a lot of thought processes because you’re thinking about your kids, ‘OK, what can I do to help them thrive in terms of their speech and language development?’ And then for my grandmother, it’s like the oncologist will call me and say ‘Hey, we want to do this clinical trial, what do you think about this?’ and a lot of the times she doesn’t want to make any decisions. It’s kind of hard making those life-altering decisions because it’s not my life.”

While multigenerational responsibilities are usually carried by baby boomers, Jackson’s situation is indicative of a larger trend in California where millennials are the largest generation of caregivers, according to a survey released by Transamerica Institute. The nonprofit foundation researches retirement and health care issues.

Thirty-nine percent of California millennials are caregiving for a child or parent, but most likely a grandparent, the data show, compared to 35 percent of baby boomers.

“Even as researchers it was a big surprise to us that a large percentage of millennials indicated some caregiving,” said Catherine Collinson, CEO and president of Transamerica Institute.

There’s a number of reasons for this generational shift, she said. “People are living longer. Baby boomers had kids at a later age and many are still working past 65 and not prepared for retirement, so it’s left to the millennials to take care of their grandparents.”

Nationally, baby boomers still make up the majority of caregivers, but only by a 3-percentage-point margin. As baby boomers continue to age and require more care themselves, millennials are projected to fill that role, Collinson said.

According to the 2017 California State Plan on Aging, California’s population age 60 and over has grown significantly. Between 1950 and 2000, the number of older adults in California has increased by 194 percent, from 1.6 million to 4.7 million.

“There’s a critical mass of people becoming elderly in the next 20 and 30 years that will require care,” she said. “Medicare doesn’t pay for long-term care.”

Jackson began caring for her grandmother five years ago, initially traveling to Strong’s house at 5 a.m. to make breakfast and help her get dressed. Jackson would return on her lunch break to prepare her meals, and go back again after work to take her dinner.

When Strong was diagnosed with lung cancer in August, Jackson moved her in with her family. She and her husband sold their house and bought their Natomas home with a bedroom and bathroom on the first floor, and smooth tile floors so they could maneuver Strong’s wheelchair.

“Shay is right there and she knows the hard times,” said Strong, who raised Jackson from infancy. “She tries to make it easier and more comfortable for me on the really hard days.”

Jackson works 30 hours a week, allowing husband Chris to be home when she’s at work and vice versa.

According to the survey, caregivers often work reduced hours or experience negative consequences in their jobs, but millennials bear the brunt of consequences in their workplace. In the national survey, 44 percent report experiencing adverse actions such as being admonished, passed over for promotions and even fired. Additionally, to accommodate their caregiving duties, 33 percent of millennials have reduced hours or job responsibilities, 24 percent have taken a leave of absence, usually unpaid, and 16 percent have retired early or quit.

“Caregiving is risky business for caregivers who are employed,” Collinson said. “You are earning less and putting yourself on a trajectory that extends beyond caregiving duties. It’s a scary proposition.”

“Societally, we need to raise awareness that caregivers are not just older employees, they’re spanning all ages in the workforce,” Collinson said. “(Employers) are not connecting the dots that a 29-year-old has some really heavy responsibilities caring for their grandparent outside of their job.”

Jackson said she exhausted her leave time after her grandmother had her lung removed. Her family’s dual income prohibits them from receiving financial support through government programs or private insurance. According to the survey, 71 percent of caregivers in California do not receive any financial assistance.

“I would say the financial hardship is not being able to work full time, being on a reduced schedule, that’s a huge pay cut,” Jackson said. “If you’re a millennial with children, it’s even more of a double hit because we can save for retirement, but saving for college might not be an option. So then you’re into the snowball effect where your children might have to take out student loans and then student loans set them back in their adult years. They might not be able to buy homes and have wealth or anything like that because they’ll have this huge debt.”

Despite this hardship, the majority of millennials say they want to care for their loved ones, according to the survey results. Fifty-eight percent said they wanted to be a caregiver and 48 percent said they have a close relationship with their care recipient.

“I’m very blessed,” Jackson said. “I have a great job, a great career, a great family. I look at that as the reason I’m here today is because of the seeds she sowed when I was a child. So for me, it’s more so paying back all the seeds she’s sown into my life to get me to this point because I wouldn’t be here without her.”

Molly Sullivan: 916-321-1176, @SullivanMollyM