The Sandwich Generation: Caregiving for a Multi-Generational Family

The term “sandwich generation” is a phrase used to describe the middle-aged generation “sandwiched” between caring for the needs of their own children and the needs of their elderly parents.

It’s estimated that more than 50 million Americans find themselves attempting to balance their personal and professional lives, while satisfying the financial and emotional needs of their multi-generational families.SandwichGeneration

The U.S. Census Bureau projects the number of Americans age 65 and older will account for 20 percent of the total population by the year 2030. With an aging population increasing, rising life expectancy and the Great Recession taking a toll on young adults’ financial independence, the squeeze on middle-aged Americans is tightening.

The Financial Squeeze

According to a 2013 Pew Research Center study32 percent of adults with a parent age 65 or older say they have provided a parent with financial support in the past year. Of those, 72 percent say it went toward ongoing expenses. The same study indicated nearly 63 percent of adults with at least one child age 18 or older, gave some financial support to a grown child within the last year.

Trying to financially provide for children and aging parents can sometimes jeopardize your own financial security. It’s crucial that members of the sandwich generation not lose sight of their financial goals.

“The key is definitely keeping an eye on your career and understanding your earnings are really important,” says Eleanor Blayney, a consumer advocate for the CFP Board, a Washington, D.C.-based professional standards board for the financial planning industry.

poll, commissioned by Workplace Options in conjunction with the Alzheimer’s Association, showed fewer than half (47%) of active or former caregivers of someone with Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia were able to maintain employment while providing care. The same poll revealed that 69 percent of caretakers had to modify their schedules by going in late, leaving early or taking time off during the day.

Even if an older parent doesn’t have any failing mental health issues and is experiencing normal aging, they may still require continual care as they advance in age.

Blayney says while it might seem necessary or easier to quit your job in order to care for others, it’s the last thing you should do. In her recent article, Blayney writes, “the costs of quitting can be far greater and long-term than simply a foregone paycheck for the period of care.”

The most recent statistics provided by a MetLife study revealed total wage, Social Security, and pension losses due to a 50+ caregiver leaving a job early averaged $303,880.

To help you find some balance between your career and role as caregiver Blayney recommends looking into the Family Medical Leave Act. If you qualify, you can take a maximum of 12 weeks a year of unpaid, job-protected leave for specific family and medical reasons. Other suggestions include talking with your employer about flex time, telecommuting and any vacation time to see how it can be used when caring for a loved one.

While the Pew study shows an overwhelming majority of Americans (75%) believe that adult children are obligated to provide for an elderly parent in financial need, the public is less convinced parents have a duty to support their grown children.  About half of all adults (52%) say providing financial support to a grown child is a parent’s responsibility.

Though it’s hard to say “no” to your children, some sandwichers might be putting their own financial lives at risk for the sake of their adult children. Blayney recommends an arms-length approach to providing financial support to adult children. “If your child is returning home to live, start by setting expectations. Specify the terms of the arrangement; compose a contract that defines how long you will provide support, give them hard employment deadlines, and how long they will be allowed to stay.”

You don’t want to help your kids so much that they have to help you down the road.

The Emotional Squeeze

As a member of the sandwich generation, you may feel pulled in many directions.

In addition to holding down full- or part-time jobs, caregivers are also putting in additional hours tending to parents, cooking, cleaning, and caring for the numerous needs of kids and spouses– all of which can be overwhelming.  McVicker reveals that 80 percent of primary caregivers say their lives have been negatively impacted by the demands of caring for a multi-generational family.

“The toll on the sandwich generation can be considerable– many times draining your time, finances and emotions,” says Barbara McVicker, eldercare expert and author of the book, “Stuck in the Middle.”

That negative impact often leads to feelings of anxiety, anger, sadness, depression, guilt and other symptoms of emotional stress.

If these pressures aren’t managed, caregivers can encounter family and marital conflicts, poor job performance and isolation due to little time for social events with friends and family.

Fortunately, there are ways members of the sandwich generation can cope. McVicker says with the right combination of communication and planning with parents and other family members, many of the emotional stresses can be alleviated.

  • Explore volunteer resources in your community, and learn about in-home services – from assistance with daily living activities to skilled nursing – available from home health care agencies.
  • If you haven’t done so already, talk to your parents about finances, aging, long-term care and the housing options available to them.
  • Work with siblings to share the responsibility of care by splitting up bill-paying, shopping, and medication duties.
  • Seek out caregiver support groups where you can talk “shop” with others in the same position.
  • Look into respite care services offered by home care agencies that allow you to enjoy a short break or vacation.
  • Hold family meetings to communicate needs, responsibilities and expectations.
  • Make time to care for yourself. McVicker warns that caregivers tend to have bigger health issues than non-care givers, so staying healthy with physical exercise and healthy eating should be a top priority. Also, staying connected to friends and enjoying hobbies can help to ease the stresses of your caregiver role.

Project Sandwich Savings

Both McVicker and Blayney agree that planning is essential for the future of any family. If you wait for the crisis, the financial and emotional burdens can be severe.

Blayney says the good news in all of this is to keep the sandwich generation trend in mind when you’re projecting what kind of income you’ll need in retirement. “The reality is that it’s going to take more money to get through our lives. That means saving more, spending less, and making sure you’re funding that retirement.”

A certified financial planner can help you assess your retirement savings, identify your insurance needs and define your financial goals to create a roadmap to achieve them.

McVicker says the most important personal finance advice for the sandwich generation is to avoid raiding their own savings, particularly retirement accounts.

“The financial pressures are big and they’ll continue to be big. The important thing to remember is not to do it at the expense of your financial well-being,” says Blayney.

How are you coping as a member of  the sandwich generation? If not a member, have you started planning for a future that may include care giving for both a parent and child? 

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