In 2006, during my freshman year of college, my mom declared bankruptcy. In 2009, she sold her home to my sister and moved in with her mother, and a year later, she lost her job. Then, in 2011, my grandmother passed away, which left my mom homeless. She tried to commit suicide several times following this, until intense psychiatric help left her unable to problem-solve, recall long-term memories, or retain short-term memories.

I started taking care of my mother in my 20s, and I'm certainly not alone - many millennials end up moving back home to care for a parent.

Through all of it, my siblings and I struggled to find ways to support her. She had lost most of her money by gambling and refusing to pay bills – a symptom of her psychiatric illness that we did not understand at the time. When she finally checked herself into a treatment center, we were relieved, but still angry at the deception.

This is how, at age 24, I became my mother’s guardian. I took over her finances, carefully tracking her money for signs of any return to her addictions. Next, I helped her to pay bills one by one and to apply for public aid assistance once she was deemed permanently disabled. I even partially financially supported her.

Parents in Need

This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. My parents were supposed to care for me.

I was just out of college and working my first full-time job. I wasn’t supposed to be thinking about how to fit my mom into my one-bedroom apartment.

But as it turns out, I’m hardly alone. A study by the American Association of Retired Persons shows that 32 percent of Americans with living parents have provided them financial support, and 42 percent expect to in the future.

In fact, much of the “great migration” of millennials returning home has been to assist pre-retired parents with mortgage payments or bills – a far cry from the idea that my generation is a bunch of freeloaders.

Baby boomers (those aged 51 to 70) are living longer, spending more, and retiring poor. So while parents like mine are living longer, they require more intense and expensive care.

Deteriorating health of a family member is another reason why many millennials stay home with their parents.

Amanda Cramer, 32, who stays home with her parents despite her MBA and a six-figure salary, explains, “My mom has multiple sclerosis. She cannot work or afford the mortgage payment. I stay home and pay rent. I figure that I don’t have a family of my own, so it’s the least I can do until it’s time for me to leave. I’ll have to figure out an alternate arrangement then.”

What Millennials Need to Know

Millennials absolutely must sit down with their pre-retired parents and discuss the future. These conversations may be difficult, but it is essential to know what the future holds for both sides.

Talk about retirement expectations, end-of-life preferences, and if the parent has set up any legal safeguards should an emergency or need for expensive, long-term care occur.

Millennials can prepare financially by purchasing life insurance on behalf of a parent to cover outstanding debts or funeral expenses. Some young adults, like Miranda Kellan, a teacher from Chicago, have taken this a step further by setting up a care fund for their parents. Kellan puts roughly two to five percent of her monthly salary in a savings account that will be used for her aging father’s needs when he is unable to care for himself.

Sacrificing for a Parent

As a caretaker for a parent, I have faced many ups and downs. Today, she’s doing better than ever – her credit score is up from a post-bankruptcy 510 to a relatively healthy 680. But as she ages, the downs will become more frequent as her financial and health needs increase. Her dependency on my siblings and me will eventually hit a breaking point.

By taking steps today to protect my mom’s future, I am doing what many of my peers are already working towards – staying home an extra few years to help pay down a mortgage or set up funds to supplement a failed retirement account.

Every morning, I wake up and think of her and what her future is going to be like. Will she ever be able to go back to work? Will she be able to pay off this debt? What happens if she loses her apartment or her car breaks down? My worries never seem to end as I become the caretaker, the overseer, the parent in our relationship.

But all I can do is hope that I am making the right moves and giving her the best life possible, regardless of the obstacles. I am taking steps today to protect my mom’s future, just as she protected mine when I was a child.