Early Burdens: Eldercare Falls on Young Shoulders

PHOTO: Suzette Armijo, 30, of Phoenix, right, oversees care of her 86-year-old grandmother, Elizabeth Armijo, left, a retired National Park Service ranger.Courtesy Suzette Armijo
Suzette Armijo, 30, of Phoenix, right, oversees care of her 86-year-old grandmother, Elizabeth Armijo, left, a retired National Park Service ranger.

At 30, Suzette Armijo cares for her widowed 86-year-old grandmother, a retired National Park Service ranger in the final stages of Alzheimer's disease, while holding down a fulltime job, a part-time job and raising a 4-year-old son.

"This was nothing that I had planned for," says Armijo, who moved her grandmother Elizabeth Armijo into a nearby six-bed assisted living home because veterans' benefits "wouldn't pay for her to live with me." Still, she says, "I have to do everything for her, aside from her bathing. There's always something new going on with her medically."

Besides her fulltime marketing job with a Phoenix retirement community, Armijo supplements her income with outside consulting because "I do have to pay a portion of Grandma's bills."

Although she doesn't know anyone else her age doing what she's doing, she comes to her caregiving out of love for a woman who took care of so many others: "I don't feel torn because I know this is the way my Grandma was," Armijo said Thursday. "She took care of her parents. She took care of my grandfather. She took care of my little brother who had cancer when he was little. I grew up seeing that."

Suzette Armijo is among a generation of young adult caregivers, the majority of whom are women, navigating tough turf without a roadmap. Few of their contemporaries shoulder equivalent responsibilities. Members of the so-called sandwich generation, squeezed by parental caregiving and child-rearing, are a good 20 to 30 years older. As they try to tap into resources to help an ailing grandmother, Mom or Dad, these 20-somethings and 30-somethings are often on a lonely road. Armijo said she's drawn some of her strength from establishing a local young advocates group through the Alzheimer's Association. "You have to find something for yourself, otherwise you lose your mind."

Younger Caregivers May Draw Some Support from Online Forums

Internet sites like AgingCare.com, which connects caregivers of elderly parents with others, may help this younger caregiving cadre find encouragement, empathy and tips on locating services.

"Other caregivers jump in and help," said Richard Nix, AgingCare.com's 49-year-old executive vice president. The National Stroke Association has launched a free, private Careliving Community with "more than 2,000 caregivers right now," said Taryn Fort, a spokeswoman for the Centennial, Colo.-based organization. Support groups for young caregivers have sprouted within some local chapters of the Alzheimer's Association, said Toni Williams, a spokeswoman for its public policy office in Washington, D.C.

Even the best-laid plans among 20-somethings can be thrown off course by a loved one's catastrophic illness and disability. After graduating from Purdue University in Indiana last May, Lauren Erickson spent six weeks in a competitive pre-medical enrichment program in Cincinnati. In September, she moved to Minneapolis to begin work as a hematology-oncology clinic assistant at Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota while studying for the Medical College Admission Test, which she hoped to take May 12.

Lauren Erickson, 23, left, moved back home to Prescott, Wis., from Minneapolis, to help care for her dad Jim Erickson, 71, right, following his stroke in March.

But on St. Patrick's Day, her father Jim Erickson, 71, suffered a massive stroke at home in Prescott, Wis., which left him unable to speak or move his right side. Because Erickson's mother, 61, was still recuperating from a Feb. 2 hip replacement, the couple's only child stepped in.

"I had to move home and help my Mom," Erickson, 23, said. As a result of new demands on her time, including a significant daily commute to Minneapolis, "I haven't opened an MCAT book or anything," Erickson said. She signed up to take the MCAT in July, but said her taking the test then will depend upon how her father is faring.

Even with a "very helpful" boyfriend and some free counseling through work, Erickson keeps wishing she could do more for her mother. "Through this whole process, I couldn't really break down or cry in front of her. I had to be the strong one." Still, she feels more rushed than ever about achieving her many life goals, including med school admission, "so that I can have my Dad present for all those events."

Having her father David Jenkins nearby was the only solution that Tara Leigh Adams, 28, found acceptable after he suffered a major stroke in November 2010. Adams, married and teaching second grade in Greenville, S.C., raced to her hometown of Charlottesville, Va., to help her 65-year-old father, a widower since Adams was a child.

Tara Leigh Adams, 28, right, a wife, expectant mother and second-grade teacher, moved her father David Jenkins, 65, seated, from Virginia.

"I think from the start I kind of, in my heart, knew that was just the way. I always knew he had to be near me," said Adams, who is expecting her first child in October. Aides help her father while she's at work, but once she walks back in the front door, she takes over everything, including getting him to the restroom.

Friends just don't understand, she said. "A lot of people my age look and say 'why do you do this? Why not a nursing home?'"

But for Adams, "there's no other option for me that would ever be as good."

Adams, who calls her husband the "rock that I lean on" said there is no substitute for "waking up and telling my Dad how much I love him in the morning."