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Welcome to the Sandwich Generation

Learn the definition of the "sandwich generation," and find out how it may affect your future.

Welcome to the Sandwich Generation

If you're like many baby boomers, you've got two or three kids of your own. And depending on how old you were when they were born, they may be anywhere from toddlers to adults living on their own. We know 50-somethings who are just now making the rounds of elementary school concerts and parent-teacher conferences, and other 50-somethings who are happily playing with their grandkids.

In addition to your kids, regardless of their ages, let's assume that your parents are still living, and that they're elderly. And you're helping to take care of them. Sound familiar? Hello! Welcome to the sandwich generation.

Most of us don't plan to become our parents' caregivers. It begins very suddenly one night, when you get a call from your mother, telling you your dad's had a stroke and is in the hospital. At that point, your life may change drastically.

Suddenly, instead of tending to your kids, your house, your job, your volunteer work, and your social life—you find yourself running back and forth from the hospital, making arrangements for Dad to go a rehabilitation center for therapy, trying to figure out insurance statements, and helping Mom take care of the house while Dad's not there. All of that occurs in addition to your obligations to your own family. Needless to say, being sandwiched between your kids and your parents is not the easiest, or most comfortable, place to be.

If you are a member of the sandwich generation, you're at least in good company. The National Family Caregivers Association (NFCA), based in Kensington, Maryland, estimates that there are 25 million family caregivers in the United States. These caregivers, nearly one quarter of whom are watching over aging parents, provide about two thirds of all home care services. The NFCA estimates the value of these services at $300 billion a year.

Go Figure

A survey by the National Family Caregivers Association shows that of the 25 million family caregivers in the United States, 81 percent are female, 79 percent are married, and 70 percent are between the ages of 40 and 60. On a scary note, nearly half of all caregivers are thought to suffer from prolonged depression.

More and more baby boomers are caring for aging parents, and making major changes in their own lives as a result. The fastest growing segment of the population today is those who are 85 years or older, including many of our parents. Our parents are living longer, and many of us will be challenged to step up and take our turns as caregivers.

If you are, you should know that there's help available. Contact your local area agency on aging for information about care giving.

One thing to remember is that planning ahead can save you a lot of trouble and heartache if the time ever comes that you need to step in as a caregiver. The best thing you can do is to sit down with your parents today and talk to them. That isn't an easy task, because the topics you need to discuss are difficult. Some of the issues you should discuss with your parents are …

  • Do they have a will and a living will or a health care power of attorney? You might assume that your parents have a will, but don't bet on it. Plenty of people simply never get around to writing one. Living wills and health care powers of attorney are legal documents that express your parents' wishes regarding future medical care and treatment. It also allows them to appoint someone to act on their behalf. Knowing your folks' wishes regarding medical treatment can save you a lot of grief if you need to make decisions for them.

  • What are their preferences for long-term care? Do they want to stay at home for as long as possible, or might they consider a retirement community or assisted living facility? Let them know what options are available to them.

  • How much income will be available for long-term care and what insurance policies do your parents have? Long-term care is expensive. You don't want to be surprised to find out there's a lot less money available than you thought.

  • Where are their important documents and records? You should know where your parents keep documents such as their will and living wills, tax returns and receipts for taxes paid, deeds to real estate and titles to vehicles, documents relating to any business ventures they may be involved with, stock certificates, bank materials, and so forth. You also should make sure you have keys to their home and any other buildings they own.

Knowing that you'll be available to help them may be comforting to your parents, but it's likely to be a touchy subject. Admitting that they need help probably isn't easy for them, and the changing roles of parents and children may be difficult.

Breaking the ice and starting a conversation, however, will bring this difficult topic to the surface and begin discussions about how to handle it.

Mid life is not without challenges, to be sure. There are, however, plenty of opportunities as well, both for now and the future. Take a deep breath, and think about all the good aspects of your life. And now, let's get started on some of those middle-age financial issues.

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