The term "sandwich generation" was coined by author Dorothy Miller in 1981 to refer to adults responsible for the care and support of their children and elderly family members. It is already a reality. Over the next 10 years, this generation is likely to grow faster than ever before as more of the 76 million baby boomers join the sandwich generation. If you feel you may be caught in the middle in terms of caring for your children and your parents, read on to learn about how it might affect you and how you can cope.
How might it affect you?
If you have to care for an elderly family member as well as your children - and work a full-time job - it might seem like there are not enough hours in the day to do it all. In fact, you may be forced to make job changes, turn down promotions, refuse jobs that require travel, reduce work hours, look for another employer that can better accommodate your schedule, or quit altogether.
Changing jobs or leaving the work force altogether to spend more time caring for a parent or child obviously means a loss of income. However, considering that the demands on your finances usually increase with the added responsibility of caring for a parent along with the rest of your family, the decision of whether to cut back or quit work is often a difficult call that lacks a perfect solution. (For related reading, see Talking To Aging Parents About Money.)
If your parents need your help, but live far from you, communicating with them can be time consuming. Even if they do live nearby, their schedules may not match yours, and you may find yourself stretched thin in trying to cater to their needs.
If your parent(s) move in with you, your entire family is likely to be affected. More responsibilities will not only placed on you, but on the rest of your family as well. It is easy to neglect other family members, eliminate vacations, change dinner times and socialize less to provide adequate care to your aging parents.
Increased stress and worry typically accompany the added responsibilities of caring for aging family members and children at the same time. Should you work or cut back on your hours? How can you watch your kids play soccer if you can't leave your mom or dad home alone? How can you save for your retirement, the kids' college tuitions and pay for mom's medicines and doctors' visits while covering your other expenses?
These added responsibilities can often cause caregivers to neglect their own health, and the stress and worry can lead to depression, fatigue and other related illnesses.
What should you do? Start planning now!
First and foremost, plan now. Start saving for your children's college education as soon as possible. If you are facing added financial demands, talk to your kids about the possibility of going to a less expensive college, or ask them to contribute to the cost of their education, either through student loans or part-time work. (To learn more about college planning, read Pay For A College Education With Retirement Funds, Choosing The Right Type Of 529 Plan and Don't Forget The Kids: Save For Their Education And Retirement.)
Adult children who move back in with their parents are commonly referred to as "boomerangs". To prevent this situation from diffusing your retirement saving plans, make sure you set ground rules. Explain their financial responsibilities as well as your expectations regarding their assistance with household chores, including helping out with younger siblings or older family members living with you. Don't be afraid to establish a time frame in which they will have to move out and become independent. It can always change, but sometimes adult children need the impetus to make their own way toward being independent. (For more on this, read Boomerangs: Why Some Kids Never Leave The Nest.)
If you are caring for an aging parent, the first and most important thing to do is to establish clear lines of communication. If your parents haven't yet needed your help, it doesn't mean it can never happen. Find out what they need and want. Often, they're reluctant to address issues relating to their health or finances because they resent what they perceive as your intrusion into their private lives. They may fear the prospect of their dependence on you or others, or they fear becoming a burden to you and your family. Nevertheless, the more you know, the easier it will be for you to accommodate their needs.
Try to find out following information:
- Do they have long-term care insurance and if they don't, can and should they get it? (For more on this topic, read Taking The Surprise Out Of Long-Term Care.)
- What are the types of assets they own and where are they located (brokerage accounts, stocks, bank accounts, etc.)?
- Who are their advisors (doctors, lawyers, financial advisors, accountants, etc.)?
- Have they completed their estate planning and is it up to date? (To learn more, check out Getting Started On Your Estate Plan.)
- Do they have a durable power of attorney, healthcare power of attorney and living will? If not, help them set these up. (Read Three Documents You Shouldn't Do Without for more insight.)
- Who is the beneficiary on your parents' retirement accounts and insurance policies? This may come in handy to pay off any debt you may incur as a result of caring for them.
If your parents are living on their own, perform a safety assessment of their home. What needs fixing? Are the floors slippery or is any carpeting torn? Are handrails loose? Also ensure that their telephones work properly and are accessible and easy to use. Cell phones are also a good idea, especially if they travel regularly. If your parents have a computer, set up an email account for them and explain the benefits of that form of communication.
When Independence Is Not an Option
At some point, your parents may not be able to live alone. If you don't see them every day, be aware of signs that may point to their need for assistance. These include:
- Changes in their daily routines, such as getting up later, taking more naps, going to bed earlier, skipping meals, etc.
- Changes in hygiene
- Sudden weight loss or gain
- Unexplained mood swings
- Bouts of forgetfulness
- Expressions of helplessness, depression, fear or anxiety
Try to encourage your parents to remain as active as they're able. It may help to locate senior centers or other local places of interest to them and encourage them to use these facilities.
If they need help with their finances, consider opening a joint bank account with your parents so that you can have access to the funds needed to pay their bills. For the same reason, it may also be appropriate to become their representative payee for purposes of Social Security, veterans benefits and pension income.
If your parents live with you, try to maintain their privacy by giving them their own room and telephone. Include them in family decisions whenever appropriate and give them responsibilities to make them feel that they are contributing to the family. For more information, check with a geriatric consultant who can provide helpful advice on a variety of issues relating to aging family members.
Providing financial support for an aging parent and child can place an onerous burden on your savings and income. Here are some tips that might help ease the strain.
- Establish clear financial goals. Review and update these goals regularly.
- Organize your financial records and review your life, disability, liability and long-term care insurance to be sure you're adequately covered.
- Create a budget and resolve to spend less. (Read The Beauty Of Budgeting to learn how.)
- Control your debt and reduce or eliminate your credit card balances.
- Save as much as possible. If you can participate in an employer-sponsored retirement or savings plan, contribute as much as possible, especially if the employer matches some or all of your contribution.
- When college tuition bills arrive, try not to dip into your retirement accounts to pay the expense.
- Make time for yourself and your immediate family. You may have to pass on that vacation to the Bahamas this year, but you can still take day trips or even dinners out on the town.
- There are many good family mediation services available that can provide guidance in family-related issues. Be sure to make use of these if necessary.
The fact that you may be faced with the daunting task of caring for an aging parent and your children at the same time is not insurmountable. Be aware of the changes that will likely take place for you and your family and try to prepare for them as soon as possible. And remember, you are not alone. There are many family services available to help you cope with becoming another member of the "sandwich generation".