“I was looking forward to the holidays, until I realized that it might not look anything like I know the holidays to be,” says Dave, a 20-year-old college student. In previous years, once he finished his finals, he could unwind and enjoy the season. But in 2020, he’s jumping straight from exams, homework, and internship duties to planning Christmas dinner, buying gifts, and decorating. After his mom, a doctor, contracted the coronavirus in mid-March, Dave stepped up as the caretaker of the entire household, which includes his mom, his teenage sister, and his at-risk dad, who has diabetes. Even after Dave’s mom recovered, Dave kept up the bulk of the household responsibilities while his mom went back to work. “It makes me kind of sad, if I’m being honest, because I feel drained,” says Dave. “I just feel completely drained.”
Dave isn’t the only Gen Zer who was thrust into a caretaking position after his parents tested positive for COVID-19. At just the point in their lives when their parents would normally be helping them launch into “real” adulthood, some 20-somethings are instead struggling with the stress of caring for their parents.
At one point I looked at them, and I was almost like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I think that they might die from this.’
In early March, both of Musarrat’s parents tested positive for the coronavirus. She and her five siblings, whose ages range from 11 to 25, took up all of the responsibilities her parents had once done, including laundry and grocery shopping, while balancing school and taking care of their seriously ill parents. The 21-year-old says watching her mom and dad battle the virus was traumatic. She was constantly holding her breath because nobody in her — or her parents’ — lifetime had dealt with a pandemic of this magnitude.
“I remember seeing my mom and my dad lose so much weight so quickly,” says Musarrat. “At one point I looked at them, and I was almost like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I think that they might die from this.’”
Dr. Aparna Atluru, M.D., M.B.A., a pediatric and adult psychiatrist at Bay Area Clinical Associates, says Gen Z caretakers may feel increased anxiety because of their inability to balance their usual priorities while coming into contact with a potentially fatal disease — not to mention the fear their parents may die. “[COVID-19] had them feeling a lot of stress and anxiety regarding the mortality of their parents and perhaps even themselves because they’re in the same house,” says Atluru.
A November 2020 survey from researchers at five major universities found a substantial increase in depressive symptoms among people aged 18 to 24 during the COVID-19 pandemic: More than 47% of young adults surveyed said they had experienced symptoms including disrupted sleep and general anxiety. While only about 6% of Gen Zers surveyed said that they’d had to stop or reduce work in order to care for someone sick with COVID-19, they were more likely to report experiencing a mental health effect than not.
Christina, 21, had to step up after her mom, a geriatric nursing assistant at a nursing home, came down with the coronavirus in April. Her father, who has pre-existing conditions, self-isolated outside their home — and Christina was quickly overwhelmed by the responsibility of being the sole functioning adult in her home. She remembers a particularly busy morning when she had to hop on a 9 a.m. Zoom class and her mom needed breakfast. “I have this memory of me at the stove fumbling around with one hand trying to scramble an egg, with my laptop in the other hand listening to class,” says Christina. She managed to succeed without dropping the eggs or her laptop, a minor victory.
In addition to caretaking and school, Dave had the extra responsibility of keeping his extended family informed. His relatives in Nepal would call Dave in tears, usually in the middle of the night because of the eight-hour time difference. “At some point I had to stop taking the calls because there were just too many,” says Dave. The lack of sleep added to his stress about his mother’s health and his schoolwork.
For Dave, Musarrat, and Christina, the mental load of worrying about their parents and themselves was also exacerbated by being in New York City, one of the first coronavirus hotspots in the United States, which as of December 2020 is experiencing a second wave of infections. Dave still feels frustrated seeing people’s risky behavior on social media knowing it could lead to another lockdown.
“Here in the United States, we have not managed to beat the virus,” says Dave. “We have learned to live with the virus. And that’s what really makes me anxious.” As a doctor working in a hospital, his mother is on the frontlines as COVID cases in New York City increase again. As of Dec. 15, there had been more than 370,000 cases and more than 24,500 deaths reported in the city, where the numbers have been on the rise since early November, per The New York Times.
I don't think I'm ever going to look at life in the same way that I did before.
Dr. Whitney McFadden, M.D., a psychiatrist and postdoctoral researcher at Harvard studying neuropsychiatric diseases, explains how shifting caretaker roles in a family is especially stressful when a young person becomes an adult sooner than anticipated. In a worst-case scenario, the young person can miss out on normal developmental processes, such as “identifying themselves outside of the family and having autonomy,” says McFadden. In a 2012 study published in The Journal of Behavioral Health Services & Research, researchers found young caregivers, especially those living with the person they assist, reported higher rates of anxiety and depression than noncaregivers. Caregiving also contributed to increased emotional distress among youth already dealing with existing school pressures.
However, caregiving can also be a positive experience, leading to stronger bonds between family members, per McFadden. “A lot of times people step up and do it, and it's really valuable because it provides you with a sense and understanding of gratitude for your family,” she says.
Although Dave, Musarrat, and Christina’s parents all eventually recovered, the crash-course into what Christina calls “the looming reality of adulthood” isn’t over — and the holiday season is the ultimate test. While she had never been part of her family’s holiday preparations before, this year, Christina cooked the entire Thanksgiving dinner (including a few ambitious dishes like a mushroom quinoa and roasted cauliflower with a turmeric Greek yogurt spread). Both Christina and her parents were impressed by her newly attained culinary skills.
She plans to tackle cooking for Christmas, too, and says she has a greater appreciation for the holiday season. “I think there are ways to take the idea of something being family-oriented and find a new definition for it,” says Christina. While she usually travels to New Jersey to spend the holidays with her 20-plus relatives, her family’s experience has reinforced the need to follow health officials’ guidance and stay put this year. “We might not necessarily see all of our family members, but we will still be with each other.”
Musarrat believes this experience helped her parents — who she calls more traditional and authoritarian — see her and her siblings as individuals, not just their kids. “Going from not having the strongest relationship with them to having to be their caretakers actually strengthened our relationship in some way,” says Musarrat. “Because I think that it brought out a side of us that they just have never really seen.”
For Dave, this experience not only brought him closer to his parents but also acted as a catalyst for stepping up as a permanent adult member of the household. That includes this holiday season as he decorates his yard, prepares dinner, and even buys a gift “from his mom” to himself: a new pair of sneakers he’s been eyeing for a while.
Overall, Dave says, caretaking has been a mixed bag. While he feels like he’s aged 10 years, he’s also gained a newfound respect for what his parents manage every day. “This is the kind of experience that changes a person,” says Dave. “I don't think I'm ever going to look at life in the same way that I did before.”
If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all Elite Daily's coverage of coronavirus here.