The Sandwich Generation
Sandy Swanson shares her perspective on balancing the needs of aging parents and support for adult children without sacrificing your sanity.
As life expectancy is increasing and young adults are taking longer to achieve financial independence, many middle-aged Americans are finding themselves stretched between caring for aging parents while also supporting their adult children. While the type of support and care can vary based on the family, and many are happy to be in the position to do it, those who find themselves in the “Sandwich Generation” with responsibilities on both ends of the family tree face challenges that can have important financial, professional and emotional implications.
I had heard the term “Sandwich Generation” used often, but in my mind, it was something that would never happen to me. My parents were retired and traveling the country in their motor home. All of my children had launched successfully with thriving careers and solid marriages. I was certain I had skated clear of this landmine. Then, one day, my sister calls to tell me my father had taken a pretty bad fall to the point where even my mother could not help him stand up and they had to call 911. Suddenly, I was thrust into the world of helping my parents make decisions about making a move to a new home. Would that be assisted living? A smaller home with no steps and an accessible bathroom?
At the same time, my first granddaughter was born. To help with the inevitable daycare costs that working parents face, I offered to watch her one day a week. To be honest, I looked forward to spending my days with Delaney. I also offered to pick her up from daycare a few afternoons, so her parents didn’t have to rush home from work.
While my situation of caregiving for my parents and taking care of my granddaughter looks a bit different from what some might define as the traditional Sandwich Generation, it is a real challenge and one that has me experiencing a wide range of emotions. As a financial advisor, I’ve talked with clients who are having similar experiences and I’ve applied some of their tips in my own life and I want to share them here in this article to help those who have also found themselves as part of the Sandwich Generation.
Tip #1: Make a Plan
Once a life event happens, whether it’s the welcoming of a new grandchild or the onset of a medical situation, assess how and where you can support and how others in your family can also contribute. Between my sister and me, we have reached a place where our parents understand the choices they are making and the long-term impact those will have. My father now wears a Life Alert bracelet and they have moved to a smaller home closer to medical care and closer to my sister. I am a quick plane ride away should an emergency happen.
Tip #2: Set Expectations and Boundaries
When putting together your plan, defining your role is key. Having conversations with my parents and with my children has played a significant role in helping me to understand expectations and set boundaries. For example, my daughter and son-in-law are very clear on the travel my work requires. In the event I’m not available to provide care on my regularly scheduled Thursday, the preschool has an option for drop-in care. We also have my younger daughter on stand-by as a back-up caregiver. And, in the event they need me on another day, my schedule is flexible enough that I can watch my granddaughter, saving her parents from having to use PTO time. By having our schedules planned and backups in place, no one is left in a panic or feels stretched beyond their initial commitments.
Tip #3: Understand the Financials
Another strain for the Sandwich Generation is expenses, in particular healthcare costs. Fortunately, my parents are in a good financial situation, and we’ve not had to bear the burden of covering the increasing costs associated with aging…yet. We know they have no long-term care coverage so in the event one, or both, need assisted living, it might be up to us to cover the gap in cost. It’s important to understand your parents’ financial situation, including long-term care and medical coverage, as you help them make important decisions for themselves and to allow yourself time to plan should you need to cover any of the cost.
We’ve seen it happen too many times when one spouse passes away and the remaining spouse is left without proper knowledge or access to their own finances. My sister and I have worked with our parents to make sure our mother knows how to access bank accounts, how to make sure the bills are paid and where to find insurance policies. We are also helping them find a tax accountant as this was a task that formerly fell to our father.
I can’t stress enough the importance of having the financial conversations early on. It can be a hard conversation to have with parents when they believe they will live long, healthy lives, but if you start now, they may be more willing to accept help as they lose their independence.
Tip #4: It Takes a Village
My last piece of advice is to build a team, so you don’t have to travel the journey alone. My sister and I talk often to share our feelings, sometimes to vent about our frustrations, but mostly to make sure we are still on the same page as caregivers. Having her as a partner is key and has allowed me to continue to play an active role in my granddaughter’s care as well.
Your team should also include objective, trusted professionals that can help you answer questions like “What happens if I need to cut back on work to care for a parent or grandchild?” or “How much should we be setting aside to assist with parents’ healthcare?” Being prepared has prevented my family from having to sacrifice our future well-being. Working with a financial advisor can provide you with a complete picture of your finances. And, down the road, they can help navigate the changes to your financial picture when the unexpected happens.