I recently came across a blog article that really resonated with me. It concerned a phenomenon that has become known as The Sandwich Generation, which is usually defined as the generation of people who are caring for their aging parents and their own children, at the same time. Hence, the Sandwich, meaning they are in the middle between two other generations – one younger, one older – and they are responsible for the care and well-being of both.
It’s a widespread phenomenon. The Pew Research Center has calculated that one out of every eight Americans, aged 40 to 60, meets this criteria. And another seven to ten million adults are involved in the support and care of their aging parents, albeit from a long distance.
I suppose, technically speaking, I am not yet a full-fledged member of the Sandwich Generation, but my husband and I have already taken some steps and made some decisions, knowing that our time is fast approaching.
I have a son who is almost 10 and a mother who is in her late 60s. I am an only child. My husband and I know that there will come a time – probably about the time my son is ready to go off to college – when my mother will move in with us. However, instead of downsizing from our present home (which is what some folks might do when their child leaves home), we’ve decided that we will move into a “mother/daughter” house – a place where all of us can maintain some semblance of independence, while still being in close daily contact and proximity.
This has all been talked through and agreed to – between my husband, Mom and me – so we are all prepared for whenever that time comes. In the meantime, we will do our best to help her maintain her independence.
My husband and I also thought it would be a good idea to initiate a similar discussion with his parents. I wish I could say that things went as smoothly with them, but they didn’t.
For one thing, their present circumstances are very different. My husband’s parents are fortunate to be of some means and they are fiercely independent. They presume they will always be able to care for themselves, and that they will never have to rely on their children for any kind of care or support.
Of course, we respect them for that and we are not trying to impose our wishes on them in any way. We just thought it might be a good idea to have a gentle, open, “what if” conversation – what if something should happen to one of them; what if their health should take a turn; what if they decided they wanted to be closer to family at some point in their lives?
We live six hours from them and my husband’s only other sibling (his sister) lives in England, so they have no family close by. Might there come a time when they would like to be closer to family and, if so, how would that look?
Anyway, our first discussion didn’t go so well but, in the meantime, we’ve had a second conversation with them and they were a bit more receptive to considering all the possibilities, which is all we hoped to accomplish.
This subject – caring for aging parents – can be an extremely delicate, thorny and uncomfortable one, for all concerned. It is a subject fraught with emotion and touches on issues that many people would prefer to avoid or ignore. But I come across this issue all the time in my work, so I thought I would offer a few suggestions on how one might more smoothly navigate these very tricky waters:
Have The Discussion – No matter how uncomfortable or unreceptive some people might be, it’s better to have these kinds of discussions than to not have them. Being prepared for all possible eventualities is a good thing, and it’s better to hold them when all the participants are all healthy, clear-headed and rational. It’s much harder to make plans or decisions in the midst of a health scare or emergency, or when a loved one is suffering from some kind of cognitive impairment.
Money Will Only Take You So Far – As I mentioned, my in-laws are fortunate to be of some means and, as result, they tend to believe that whatever problems come their way, they have the money to overcome them. But what happens if one or both of them should get to a point where they can’t effectively manage their money anymore. Then what? Who is going to step in and make sure they are being properly cared for and that all their financial responsibilities and personal wishes are being met. Again, being prepared is a good thing.
Get the Help You Need – Members of the Sandwich Generation are tasked with monumental responsibilities and in order to meet them, they must get all the help they need:
- Secure long-term care insurance for your parents early on
- Get the necessary financial/legal help to navigate Medicare/Medicaid laws, living wills, powers of attorney, and other healthcare issues
- Set up a college fund for your children
- Continue to fund your own retirement program
- Take care of yourself. Make sure to get plenty of rest, healthy food and exercise
Members of the Sandwich Generation are typically juggling a marriage, children, a career, financial issues and care for their aging parents. It is often a tall order but it is what we do for those we love.