Across the country, 40 million adults serve as caregivers for loved ones, according to the AARP. Ten million of those caregivers are millennials, and a majority of the loved ones are parents. Caring for the person who took care of you can be overwhelming both emotionally and logistically, especially when you have to juggle a full-time job with the roughly 20 hours per week that caregiving requires.
“Most millennials haven’t dealt with their own health problems, let alone someone else’s, so they don’t always know what needs to be asked,” says Amy Goyer, AARP family and caregiving expert and author of Juggling Life, Work and Caregiving.
Here are 10 questions new caretakers should raise with their parents, doctors and even their own bosses.
You’ll need to sit Mom or Dad down and have them tell you their medical life story. “Many new caregivers know surprisingly little about their parents’ health history, especially childhood diseases,” says Goyer. Make a cheat sheet as you listen — there will be many times you’ll need to list all your loved one’s past illnesses, surgeries, medications and hospitalizations.
You likely already know the doctor’s goals for treatment, which might include things like improvements in blood work or mobility. “No one really cares about getting their A1C level down,” says C. Grace Whiting, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Caregiving. Try to find out what your mom or dad are hoping to achieve. The prospect of keeping up with grandkids on a family trip might be better motivation for following a strict diet than attaining healthy blood sugar levels.
Whenever you join your parent at the doctor, you’re really making two appointments. Experts agree you should come prepared with a list of questions for the doctor. But you should also carve out time for a one-on-one visit or phone call with your parent to make that list. Talk privately about your concerns then. “As you care for someone, write down things you notice that are different,” says Whiting. For example, if your former accountant father suddenly fails to balance his checkbook, you don’t want to bring it up for the first time in front of the doctor.
Thanks to the rise of electronic medical records, your mom’s whole care plan, test results, office visit summaries and more can be made available to you at the tap of a touchscreen. Whiting suggests asking your parent and the doctor if this can be arranged. In some cases, it’s as informal as them sharing their username and password with you. In others, you will need to sign a legal form that varies by state in order to obtain permission.
The same online portal that can let you view your mom’s health records can also let you communicate with her doctors. Don’t hesitate to send a note through the portal requesting the doctor call you to address a question or concern, or even just to give you a one-on-one update. You shouldn’t feel like a burden on the doctor; this is part of their job. “In fact,” Whiting says, “the doctor should be asking you what kind of help you need and sharing resources for caregivers with you.”
When you notice cognitive changes in your parent, you’ll likely want them to have a full battery of tests. Confronting them about a spotty memory or other signs of mental decline puts them on the defensive. Instead, talk around the issue. “You can say something like, ‘I read an article about brain changes as you age, and it said it’s really good to do this particular test to get a baseline,’” Goyer suggests. “There is something about getting a baseline that makes tests less threatening to older adults.”
When a doctor explains the plan for ongoing care and you see your mom or dad struggle to understand, you should intervene. “Instead of confronting your parent or asking the doctor to explain it a third time, say to your parent, ‘Can you walk me through what the doctor is asking us to do?’” Letting them repeat back what they think they heard clears up what needs to be explained further.
Being a caregiver means asking for help. More than half of all millennial caregivers fill this role for their parent solo, but no one can do it all alone. You can and must ask for help from less involved siblings (or other family members), neighbors and friends. This extends to your workplace as well. “Know your rights,” says Whiting. Many people have access to family medical leave. Ask your boss if you can work from home sometimes or come up with a more flexible schedule.
Sharing fun activities reduces stress for both of you while strengthening your relationship. “Stop in a coffee shop on the way home from an appointment,” Goyer says. “Watch a movie together. Listen to music you both like. Often things that ease their stress ease your stress too.”
At least once a year, Goyer says, “you must have a few days away from caregiving.” Plan it in advance, and arrange for the help you need to make it happen. If one break a year doesn’t seem like enough time off, consider that Goyer is accounting for the financial situation of a lot of millennial caregivers: Many rely on single incomes; 1 in 3 earn less than $30,000 per year; caregiving costs an average of $6,800 per year. If you’re in the position to get away more often, do it.
And while you’re on duty, mini-breaks and regular self-care should happen routinely, starting with getting enough sleep. “We try to do without it, but then you can’t cope mentally, physically or emotionally,” she says. Being a supportive, helpful caregiver requires taking care of your own wellbeing too.
Joy Manning writes about health, food and the relationship between the two. Her work has appeared in publications including the Washington Post, Shape and Men’s Health. She’s the editor of Edible Philly magazine.