At a time when your career is reaching a peak and you are looking ahead to your own retirement, you may find yourself in the position of having to help your children with college expenses or the financial challenges of young adulthood while at the same time looking after the needs of your aging parents. Squeezed in the middle, you’re in the “sandwich generation” – a group loosely defined as people in their 40s to 60s who are “sandwiched” between caring for children and aging parents.
The fact is women are the ones who most often step into the caregiving role based on a 2012 study by The National Clearinghouse for Long Term Care Information. As more women have children later in life and more parents live longer lives, the ranks of the sandwich generation are likely to grow in the years ahead. If you find yourself sandwiched between caregiving demands, here are some strategies to navigate this life phase.
First, set priorities. The day-to-day demands of caring for both an aging parent and children can put a tremendous strain – both emotional and financial – on the primary caregiver. This is especially true when adult siblings or family members don’t agree on the best course of action for elder care, don’t pitch in to do their share, or don’t contribute enough financially to the cost of that care. The first thing to do is get yourself in the proper mindset. This life phase could last one or two years, or it could last many more. In any case, try to treat this stage as a marathon and pace yourself.
Encourage open communication with your family to figure out ways to share the financial, emotional, and time burdens. Women are often conditioned to believe they have to “do it all,” but there is no reason why adult siblings (if you have any) can’t share at least some of the workload. It’s important for caregivers to get their own financial house in order. Ironically, at the very time you need to do this, the demands of caregiving may cause you to lose income because you have to step back at work – through reduced hours, unpaid time off, or turning down a promotion.
Second, talk to your parents about their financial resources. Do they have retirement income? Long-term care insurance? Do they own their home? Learn the whereabouts of all their documents and accounts, as well as the financial professionals and friends they rely on for advice and support. Much depends on whether your parent is living with you or out of town. If your parent lives a distance away, you’ll have to monitor his or her welfare from afar – a challenging task. According to the National Institute on Aging, about 7 million Americans are long-distance caregivers. Though caregiving can be a major stress on anyone, distance can magnify it – daily phone calls or video chats might not be enough, and traveling to your parent’s home can be expensive and difficult to manage with your work and family responsibilities. If your parent’s needs are great enough, you may want to consider hiring a geriatric care manager, who can help oversee your parent’s care and direct you to the right community resources, and/or a home health aide, who can check in on your parent during the week.
Third, pay attention to the needs of your children. They may be feeling the effect of your situation more than you think especially if they are teenagers. At a time when they still need your patience and attention, you may be preoccupied with your parent’s care, meeting your work deadlines, and juggling your financial obligations. Involve them in the process so they better understand what is going on and what will be expected of them or what they should expect to happen as you carry a greater burden of caring for all.
Fourth, pay attention to your needs. This stage of your life could last many years, or just a few. Try to pace yourself so you can make it for the long haul. As much as you can, try to get adequate sleep, eat nutritiously, and exercise – all things that will increase your ability to cope. Don’t feel guilty about taking time for yourself when you need it, whether it’s a couple of hours holed up with a book or out to the movies, or a longer weekend getaway. When you put your own needs first occasionally and look after yourself, you’ll be in a better position to care for those around you.
• Paula Dorion-Gray is a certified financial planner. Send any financial questions you wish to have answered in this column to Dorion-Gray Retirement Planning Inc., 2602 Route 176, Crystal Lake, IL 60014. You may also fax them to 815.455.4989 or email email@example.com.