Family: Stuck in the Middle

by Sandra Fletcher

Which way were you headed… toward the day care centre or the retirement home?
Are you buying adult diapers or baby formula…or both? What is a more difficult choice: funeral planning or university selection? For those people who care for both their parents and their own children, these questions might not be too far away from their reality.

Anyone who finds him/herself in a position of caring for their aging parents while raising their own children at the same time is considered to be part of the sandwich generation. “Sandwich” meaning caught between the responsibility of providing a good upbringing, education and foundation for their kids at the same time as handling the responsibility of providing financial, medical and dignified care for their parents.

Who is in charge?
The people who make up the sandwich generation take on a great deal of responsibility. According to Statistics Canada three in 10 people in Canada between the ages of 45 and 64 are caring for someone over the age of 65 as well as someone under the age of 25. Those numbers are increasing steadily as the baby boomers get older and people live longer. More often than not, the person who is the primary provider of that “care” is a woman. As a matter of fact, women are twice as likely to be responsible whether they are caring for their own parents or their spouse’s.

There are many considerations when deciding to take on the care for elderly parents. Since family is a priority in most cultures and respect for elders is demanded, it is often not an obligation or burden but a natural part of life. However, there are a few major issues to deal with as you become a parent to your parents including legal, financial, medical and emotional needs.

Legal Ease
Jun Lam and her husband Ken care for her elderly parents as well as their three teenage children in their large home in the east end of Toronto.

It began in 2005 when Jun’s father suffered a heart attack. He was no longer able to care for his own home or work in the business he had runfor 20 years. The decision was made by the whole family to blend the two households. Jun’s parents sold their business and their own home and the Lams sold their smaller house. Funds from the sale of Jun and Kim’s home were combined with her parent’s money to purchase a larger home. The new house is in Juns and Kim’s names as owners. By doing this, the tax implications and paperwork will be less upon her parent’s death. While this makes logical sense, it was hard for her father to accept that after working his entire life, he now owns nothing.

Since moving in together, the new larger family has experienced some major conflict between the generations. Jun’s parents don’t understand why she is so liberal with her children; allowing them to stay out late, speak disrespectfully, etc. Meanwhile, Jun’s children find their grandparent’s traditional Chinese values to be too strict and old fashioned.

Culture Shock
But living with several generations in one household is not all bad news. Judy’s mother has lived in their home for the past two years. Not only is she helping them as a full time caregiver to their two young boys but also, the situation provides Babcia (Polish for grandmother) with companionship and a comfortable place to live in her retirement.

Judy says that the biggest challenge with this arrangement can be the strain that having her mother in the house puts on her marriage. For example, including a third adult in the household discussions and arrangements can be awkward and create tension.

There are many benefits to this arrangement as well. Judy has been able to reconnect with her mother after several years of living far apart. She thinks it’s a huge plus that her sons will be able to grow up with their Babcia, learn from her and as a bonus, learn to speak Polish.

Emotional Exhaustion
One of the things that Judy identifies as a difficulty for the sandwich generation is finding time to take care of herself after spending so much time taking care of others.

“I sometimes feel guilty just doing things for myself,” says Judy. She is not alone. One of the most difficult things for caregivers to do is to ensure that they take the time to take care of their own emotional and social needs as well as those all around them. It is a constant struggle to ensure that there is balance – even more so if the caregiver, like Judy, works a full time job.

Working it out
The work/life balance is never simple. For those in the sandwich generation it is a huge challenge to make everyone happy. Some alter their work arrangements, some cut back their work hours and some leave their jobs entirely in order to meet the needs of their family.

But what about the family’s financial needs? Often, families find that the cost of caring for an elderly relative can be too high.

Carole emigrated here from Jamaica two decades ago with her husband and their small children, leaving her mother behind. As her mother became older and was unable to care for herself, Carole and her brother hired nurses to care for their “Momma”.

The expense of caring for Momma put a constant strain on the family finances. Payments for 24 hour nursing care were expensive. Add to that expense several trips “back home” each year as well as weekly telephone calls.

As her mother neared the end of her life, the emotional strain of being away from her took its toll on Carole. Each illness could have been her last and she felt helpless being unable to care for and comfort her Momma from a distance.

It’s very important for caregivers to seek out help whether they are in Carole’s long distance situation or in a live-in situation like Jun or Judy. The role reversal when one is caring for an aging parent is never easy and there is help available to caregivers in support groups and through many city agencies.

Forward Planning
No one wants to plan for the worst but in order to make sure that there are no surprises, it’s best to look ahead. In the case of the sandwich generation, the plan must include looking at your finances where everyone is concerned.

One of the most difficult things to do with an aging parent is to take away their ability to make decisions and control their own lives. It’s better for them to make plans when they have all of their wits about them, rather than waiting until they are unable to make decisions.

Power of attorney gives responsibility to someone appointed to handle the financial and legal affairs on behalf of someone not able to manage their own affairs.

There is also power of attorney for personal care that provides decision-making in all personal care issues including medical decisions. Getting power of attorney in place for your aging parents is wise planning for the future.

It is also important that multigenerational families continue to save for their own retirement and for their children’s education. While changing work arrangements and increased expenses for long term elder care can take their toll, everyone’s future should be taken care of.

Staying respectful
As difficult as it is to watch your child suffer with a cold, it is equally hard to watch your parents suffer with illnesses. While your children are used to having you care for them and comfort them, the same situation can cause stress and awkwardness with sick parents.

Robert stayed in his own apartment until his recent death. His children respected his wishes to live independently in spite of his terminal cancer. They did provide most of his medical care, driving to and from his home to administer medications, feed, bathe and clean for him. Robert’s eldest daughter had both medical and financial power of attorney and consulted with her father on all decisions as long as he remained capable.

Her own children saw less of her but the reward of being her father’s caregiver was worth the sacrifices she made, as it so often is.

Dr. Robert Goddard, an American rocket scientist once said, “Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant with the weak and the wrong. Sometime in your life you will have been all of these.”

The sandwich generation teaches the next generation the worth of valuing family, compassion and caring, leading by ex ample.

CNM