Forget Millennials, It's The Sandwich Generation We Need To Worry About

Michael Wedmann thinks it's time we started taking care of the generation of adults who are caught between caring for their kids and their elderly parents.

I cannot speak for you, but I am quite tired of hearing all the talk of Millennials. And of course, the Gen X’ers cannot get enough attention. And rarely a week goes by without a story about the Baby Boomers. But I don’t hear a lot about what is called “The Sandwich Generation”. These are individuals caught between the often conflicting demands of caring for children and caring for seniors. And while caring for both kids and seniors, simultaneously holding down full-time jobs. I think I just missed being Generation X, I may be Generation. But I am definitely in the midst of the “Sandwich Generation".

Of course, it’s not a new development. People have been looking after their kids and parents since forever. But statistics suggest this situation will grow significantly as the baby boomers grow older. And in our current society, we do have some challenges that differ from previous generations.

Go back to the 1950s and 60s and most families could easily manage on one income. This opened the door to one spouse being a stay at home parent. While I certainly don’t undermine the difficulty of being a stay at home parent, it does mean a different reality. It takes some pressure off when a senior parent needs some assistance after a hip replacement and it’s not necessary to ask for time off work from an employer. In earlier times we also didn’t travel or migrate as far from the nest.  Today travel is easy and multi-national companies encourage their workers to relocate. So the days of several generations living in the same house or at least in the same town is not as common anymore. It’s one thing to zip over to our parent’s house to help out for an hour when it’s an 8-minute drive, rather than a four-hour drive or plane ride. We’ve also gone from previous generations where three, four and five kids were common. Now most Canadian families have one child. The implication down the road means that this lone child will bear the full burden of parent care. Of course, the other factor is that better nutrition plus advances in health care mean we are living longer. Life expectancy in Canada in 2016 has reached 80 for men and 84 for women. In 1960 it was only 68 for men and 74 for women! We all wish our parents would live forever, but this new reality is changing family dynamics. 

My parents had a different experience as immigrants, moving to another continent. In their case, it was for the most part impossible for them to be of assistance to their parents as they aged and required more assistance. At that time air travel was very expensive and they simply didn’t have the resources to fly overseas every time there was a time of need. Even overseas phone calls were outrageously expensive back in the 1970s, and poor quality as well. This brought them their own heart aches and feelings of powerlessness. This is often the untold story of being an immigrant. Fortunately, in Germany, where my Grandparents lived, there was a strong social assistance program that did provide adequate care. And siblings and cousins had to step up to the plate. But sometimes there is no substitute for just “being there”. We all want to do the best for our loved ones which is why we are feeling increasing pressure to do more, and more, and more.

Three generations of Wedmann's.

Is it ironic that my 2.5-year-old awoke with a blazing fever this morning when I knew I would be writing this article tonight? Probably not. On Thursday I spent six hours in my car so I could visit my parents, with my mom still ailing from a bad fall. I could not be of much assistance but at least I could provide some emotional support. I am also very fortunate to have a very capable sister and brother-in-law that share this challenging time.

Another twist in the situation is the increasing age of new parents. As we choose to have kids later in life we now are running into the situation of having elderly parents while having very young children. It’s never easy to be a caregiver to a parent. But when the kids have already flown the nest or at least old enough to be self- sustaining it’s a little more manageable. 

The repercussions go outside the family and into the workplace. Now we have a new balancing act. We must ask for time off work when the toddler has a fever or to take a parent to an out of town specialist appointment. Do we turn down promotions that will be too time-consuming? Do we avoid important career choices to preserve our seniority and stability?

In my case, I just celebrated a 50th birthday and have a 2-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son to care for. I have been very fortunate to have had my parents with me through thick and thin. They are made from sturdy stock, both now in their eighties and still living in their own home, largely on their terms. However, getting old is often unkind and comes with health challenges. 

So what is the solution? We hear a lot of talk about more resources in our health care system for in-home care. But is the home care designed for those that are the intended recipients? From what I have experienced the in-home care can be difficult to qualify for, and difficult to understand when you are not tech savvy or perhaps when you are elderly and stressed out, have poor hearing, or when English is a second language. 

Perhaps it’s time to rethink social services so they work for the recipients. Maybe it’s time we find ways to provide financial assistance to caregivers for short-term leave in addition to long-term requirements. Maybe we need to educate employers and coworkers on what these challenges mean.

In an era where we seem to be very short-sighted, cutting pensions, cutting benefits, outsourcing our good paying jobs to other countries and vilifying unions that champion worker’s rights and wages, I fear we are headed in the wrong direction when we are on the cusp of the “Sandwich Generation” growing exponentially. While this may be my story today, there are plenty more just around the corner. Buckle up!

 

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