“My future, my desires, my plans…they all got sucked into a vacuum.”

Young caregivers may face challenges with making friends, experiencing cognitive dissonance, and feeling like they’re not fully living their lives. How can you remain young and carefree while also being a caregiver? 

Caregiving and youth are not mutually exclusive

Let’s first get something straight: while it can feel like your youth and your caregiving role are at odds, they don’t have to be.

Though many young caregivers feel pulled in opposing directions by their role and by their youth, being carefree and a caregiver is possible. By fully embracing both of your identities, you can find a balance between them that allows you to live as both without burning out.

Why do so many of us believe we can’t be young and provide care?

Young caregiver visibility

Being a young caregiver can be isolating, because many feel like others can’t relate to what they’re going through. Despite the abundance of young caregivers across the globe, these caregivers often shy from sharing their experiences–leaving each other feeling alone despite shared struggles.

In an interview with Supportiv, Alexandra Drane, Co-Founder and CEO of ARCHANGELS, sheds light on the reality of caregiving while young: “Caregivers are everywhere, and they don’t always look like what we’d expect.” 

The belief that you’re an atypical example of a caregiver can be isolating, and that isolation is compounded by a lack of communication. “Unfortunately, the younger a population gets, the less open it appears they feel to see themselves in this role, or to talk about this role that they have,” says Drane.

Conceptually, caregiving and being a young person may feel at odds, but in reality, young caregivers are in good company: “1 in 4 caregivers are Millennial, and 1 in 5 are Gen Z,” Drane tells us. She goes on to reiterate that, “Yes, you have many friends who are going through this.”

Opening up about the challenge of caregiving while young feels risky, but if you do, you may connect with others who can redefine your ideas about your own experience.

Establishing balance as a young caregiver

Work on ways to draw the line between your caregiver life from your personal life. To prepare for times you will be unavailable, help your loved one find other supports or arrange their schedule toward more independent activities. Communicate clearly with your loved one so you both have an understanding of each other’s needs, fears, hopes, and boundaries. Make plans for different possible situations to lessen the stress of the unknown.

Set “the minimum”

Nobody can be on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, forever. Though you help your loved one as much as you can, you need to look out for yourself too. Take some time to consider what your “minimum” time to yourself is. Is it overnight while you sleep? For 15 minutes each day before your loved one wakes up or after they go to sleep? One full day a week? Whatever the time period may be, make sure your loved one understands that this needs to be uninterrupted “you” time. 

When live-in caregiving

If you live with your loved one, consider forming hobbies and interests outside of the home. Because our bodies and minds quickly learn associations between environments and feelings, trying to relax in the same place you associate with work can be quite difficult. Even if you don’t have a long break, try taking a walk around the block or even just stepping outside for some fresh air. The change in environment will help you reset, like a palate cleanser. 

When on-call caregiving

If you’re on call, consider making a set of codes for the on-call level (e.g., red means only emergencies, yellow means if you need me, green means ask anytime). Applying labels for different support levels can help you both understand what is needed from any particular situation. 

Enhancing the “life” part of the balance

Even if we do have time to ourselves, knowing what to do with it can be harder than you’d think. We often feel like we have so little time, we’re afraid to waste it. In these times, remember that joy is joy — regardless of where it comes from.

Do something new

Nothing will make you feel less carefree like routine does. We are born curious. We spend our entire lives learning and growing. When we settle into a routine, things often become more predictable, but also less interesting. But you don’t have to be reliable or spontaneous. Caregiving isn’t mutually exclusive with adventure and exploration. Whether you try a crossword puzzle, crochet, a hike, or whatever else, the new challenge will renew your energy.  

Do something old

Remember that thing you absolutely loved doing when you were younger? The same thing you never get around to anymore? Ask yourself why you gave it up. If the reason is anything besides not liking it anymore, consider revisiting the early joy. Particularly when life is feeling especially demanding, these simple joys can mean so much. Whether it’s once a day, once a week, or once a month, spend a little bit of time doing the things you’ve loved since the beginning. 

Surround yourself with support

So much of what makes life fulfilling is other people. Connection is hardwired into our biology, with one wellbeing-related hormone (oxytocin) released specifically in response to bonding with others. Making friends starts with putting yourself out there (literally out there, either in a public place or on the internet) and introducing yourself. Maintaining relationships comes down to appreciating the connections you’ve already forged. When you’re feeling lonely, reach out. Chances are, other people will be excited to hear from you. 

Getting help when you need it

Being young and carefree can seem impossible when burdened by responsibility. If you’re feeling this way, don’t be afraid to seek help. While asking others for help can feel uncomfortable, the people you care about the most likely want to help you as much as they can. Helping others is part of our nature, and doing so actually makes people happier

As a caregiver, you know the importance of support. So make sure you talk to someone, whether it’s your loved one, a close friend, peer supports, or a professional. Regardless of who, getting your feelings out there will help you sort through this wonderful and stressful life.