2011 was the year the term “sandwich generation” really hit home for the first time. It was the year I turned 51 and my son turned 5.
It was also the year I realized my father was slowly fading away. And my mother, remarried since 1977, was beginning her second year as a widow. The last time I saw my stepfather my son was barely three months old.
On Christmas Eve of 2011, I questioned my father-in-law on a subject I couldn’t seem to escape: aging and death. A very devout Catholic with a doctorate in philosophy, Ed’s thoughts had begun to wander but his insights were clear. He wanted to meet again to keep our conversation going.
Two weeks later my father-in-law entered the hospital, never to return home.
I was now firmly wedged between a child who would need nuturing and financial support for the next 20-odd years and a set of aging parents and in-laws – a perfect example of what defines the sandwich generation.
The Financial Squeeze
When my stepfather passed away, my mother was fortunate to be left with a pension but had trouble adjusting a reduced income. My older brother and I were expected to fill the gap. But I had never managed money well and now I had to save for both retirement and college tuition.
My brother had a sandwich of his own: he was busy raising three young children from his second marriage after sending two grown sons through college.
Even providing emotional support was a challenge, as I was generally exhausted from parenting a rambunctious little boy.
Then there was my mother-in-law, now living on social security. She was already getting a small check from us every month when my father’s life partner phoned me one day with a request: Could we start sending him a little something every month? Anything we could afford would help.
Not Enough “Me” To Go Around
By now, my father needed round-the-clock care and he and his partner had gone through all of their savings paying for visiting nurses, medications, and various uninsured expenses. They lived in Manhattan. I lived near Boston. Regular visits were impossible.
I wish I could make the 4 1/2 hour drive down to New York every couple of weeks or send enough money to pay for more help. But my son needs me here. And did I mention we’re not prepared yet for tuition or retirement?
Counting My Blessings
My own experience as a member of the sandwich generation may sound difficult but it could have been worse. Even though my husband and I were surrounded by three pairs of aging parents, each couple had one partner in relatively good health.
My father-in-law passed quickly and was never a burden to his family; my mother cared for my stepfather during his ten year decline; and, unwilling to send him to a nursing home, my father’s life partner took on more and more responsibilities as the two of them were less and less able to pay for outside help.
Advice For Members Of The Sandwich Genereation
For anyone finding themselves in this position, or if you’re pregant over 40 or considering pregnancy or adoption after age 40, here are some things you might consider in coping with your sandwich generation status:
1. You are going to need to rally support from sources other than your parents.
Even if you have parents or in-laws who are healthy and willing to help out, there’s a good chance that situation could change, and sooner rather than later. So make sure you have some reliable baby sitters you can call on and look for support groups.
Ideally, find a group for older moms. But at least make connections in the community so you don’t find yourself alone and at the end of your rope with no one who can lend a hand or a sympathetic ear!
2. You will need to plan your finances carefully.
There are going to be three major buckets to fill: retirement, college funding, and elder care. If you’ve planned well, this may not concern you. But if you aren’t prepared then it’s time to take stock of your financial situation.
Some compromises may be in order. Or a reality check. For me that means I’m not going to retire at 65! And my son might have to settle for a vocation or be prepared to qualify for scholarships; should we encourage him to be a star athlete or honors student? Time will tell.
3. You’ll need to take care of yourself better than ever before!
When they say that having kids late in life “keeps you young”, think of it the other way around. You MUST stay as young and fit as possible in order to keep up! Remember, you have lots of people counting on you. As you age, little transgressions like ignoring diet and exercise will take a much bigger toll.
For example, you might find that while younger parents stay up late after their kids go to bed, your bed time more or less matches your kid’s. If that’s what it takes in order to get enough rest, so be it! Be kind to your body and it will return the favor.
4. You will probably not be able to provide round-the-clock care for anyone other than your infant.
Had my son already reached college age (as would be the case for a typical 50-something parent) I would have been a lot more able to help out when my father became sick. But there was no way I could care for both my little one and my parent at the same time; and most likey neither can you.
So start thinking now about how you will handle it if one or more of your parents needs care. There are lots of options these days other than nursing homes. And if you have siblings, make sure they understand how being an older parent affects the role you’ll play in the family dynamic.
My husband and I have been talking lately about finishing the attic or basement to provide additional living space should one or both of our mothers need to move in. That is, of course, if they’re relatively independent. Because when the time comes, heaven help me, I’ll probably be dealing with a rebellious teenager as I move into decade number six.
Such is the lot of the sandwich generation.