Caught in the middle: The Sandwich Generation

Economic distress and demographic change mean many 30- and 40-somethings are juggling multiple care responsibilities. Welcome to the “Sandwich Generation”.
What\'s missing in this picture is the generation that has to take care of both the young and old. .../ Credits: Reuters
Carol Abaya had a full-time job as a journalist and a teenaged child at home when her parents became ill in the 1990s. Following an accident, her mother was hospitalized for two months; when she came home, Ms. Abaya’s father also become ill and went into the hospital.

“I was just thrown into it,” Abaya explains. “I had to take over my mother’s business as well as the medical care, finances, everything.” Eventually, her ailing parents needed full-time care. “For the first year after the hospitalization, I literally did everything for my mother because she wasn’t able to do anything, and my father couldn’t help – he needed care too.”

While the challenges faced by Ms. Abaya and others in the Sandwich Generation are not new, they have been made even more difficult and prevalent due to a variety of trends, including longer lifespans; the aging of the baby boomer generation; economic crisis; children living at home for longer; and changing lifestyles in which adult children live farther away from their parents than in the past, thereby making care efforts more complicated and costly.

Who are the Sandwich Generation? First of all, they’re not really a single generation according to the Council on Contemporary Families – in the U.S., the majority of people with elder and child care responsibilities are between 28 and 42 years old, but many are older (38 percent are between 43 and 61 years old) or younger (7 percent are younger than 28). As for how many belong to this group, according to the Pew Research Center one of every eight Americans aged 40 to 60 is raising a child and caring for a parent, either physically, financially or both.

Researchers Margaret B. Neal and Leslie B. Hammer found that a typical American “sandwich couple” consists of a 44-year-old man and a 42-year-old woman with two children in the household, with husband and wife each spending the equivalent of one workday or more each week caring for parents, stepparents, or parents-in-law.
The story is similar across the world: According to 2011 statistics from the OECD, across the OECD countries more than one in ten adults is involved in informal, generally unpaid, caregiving. And in Asia, according to a study by the Economist Intelligence Unit, members of the Sandwich Generation are typically between the ages of 30 and 45, married, and supporting one or two children and two parents or parents-in-law – and this group is an estimated 20 percent of the working-age population. In China, the numbers increase to 36 percent.

The financial implications for these dual caregivers can be significant. More than one-third of Asia’s sandwich generation members have had to work harder to cover family expenses. UK newspaper The Telegraph recently reported that the sandwich generation spends an average of more than £3,500 a year supporting both their children and their own parents, with three out of five people in this group saying the cost of helping dependents was preventing them from enjoying the lifestyle they had anticipated. In the U.S., the rise in medical costs for the elderly and skyrocketing college tuition for young adults has created a double whammy.

These additional financial obligations are forcing many in the Sandwich Generation to take on additional debt, and reduce or even postpone their retirement planning – an ill-advised proposition given the current state of pension systems around the world. Of Asian sandwich generationers, about half have reduced their savings and investments, and nearly two-thirds are more cautious with their existing investments than they would otherwise be.

Additionally, many caregivers may lose income due to taking time away from work for doctor visits, running errands, cleaning, cooking, and other daily demands. Some caregivers leave their jobs entirely, thereby sacrificing additional income as well as contributions to pension schemes and jeopardizing their own retirement years.

Finding support and resources for caregivers

While more difficult to quantify than the financial repercussions, the physical and emotional impact of their responsibilities can also be significant for those in the sandwich generation. Depression, burn-out and a general decline in mental and physical health have all been reported in a variety of studies on the impact of caregiving on carers.

“For some reason, Sandwich Generationers feel they have to do everything themselves and can’t ask for help,” explains Abaya, who turned her own personal experience as a caregiver into action. When she looked for support resources for herself and her parents in the 1990s, she found very little, which led her to launch her own magazine, The Sandwich Generation, focusing on elder care issues. She also writes a syndicated column.

“The good news is that there is a lot more support out there now than there was 20 years ago,” she says. The first place she recommends looking for support is locally – most cities and communities have a Council on Aging or similar organization that can be a good first stop.

She also strongly emphasizes the importance of good financial and legal assistance; in the U.S., this means having power of attorney for financial matters, which allows you to make decisions on behalf of your parents if they should fall ill; a living will, which outlines decisions regarding health and medical care; and a testamentary will, which dictates where assets will be distributed.

“When my mother was ill, I didn’t even have the legal right to pay her telephone bill,” Abaya explains. “There is a misconception in the public that if they give someone else power of attorney, that they have given up all rights over their money – but that’s not the case. The POA is just a helper that enables someone else to assist, and adds a safety net if someone becomes incapacitated.”

Part II of the Sandwich Generation series will take a closer look at the range of planning and support options available to caregivers.

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