'The Sandwich Generation'

September 14, 2000

'The Sandwich Generation'

By KEVIN CLAPP / Staff Writer

Watching your children grow up. Taking them to college. Learning to live in an empty nest. Turning the big 5-0.

Entering middle age has always included a series of personal benchmarks. Increasingly, there is another responsibility to contend with: Parenting your parents.

As baby boomers enter the second half of their lives, their parents are becoming the fastest growing demographic in America. More people than ever are living into their 80s and 90s. At a time when many boomers may have anticipated slowing down or traveling, they instead are faced with the possibility of taking care of their parents when health deteriorates or finances run dry.

The key, according to many involved with studying elder care, is to plan ahead as much as possible.

"It's really important to have family meetings at the beginning of the caregiving process," says Barbara Ensor, a psychologist at Stella Maris, a nonprofit organization in Timonium, Md., that provides elder care. "The siblings have to get together regularly and keep each other informed."


Though difficult, talking to elderly parents about the end of their lives is critical to avoid messy legal and health questions if parents become incapacitated due to sudden illness.

"In many families, it's actually the senior that takes the lead in this," Ensor says. "The older person's view of death is very different than the younger person's. It's not appropriate for someone in their 20s, 30s and 40s to start making plans about dying, but someone in their 80s is just happy for today."

Rosemary Forrest, a public relations coordinator for an ecology research lab at University of Georgia, learned first-hand what can happen when she had to take care of her uncle in Florida.

Monthly trips ate away at her vacation and sick leave at work. Financial questions made her wonder if she would have to come up with the money to pay for care. And she was trying to take care of two daughters both in the process of going to college.

"I didn't really take a break," the 49-year-old says. "I took so much time off to take care of my uncle or take care of my daughters that when I wasn't, I had to work."

Dorothy Howe, a program consultant with AARP, says not having enough time for yourself when undertaking the dual burdens of raising a family and taking care of parents is the largest pitfall members of "The Sandwich Generation" will encounter.

Forrest says she got a dog while caring for her uncle, but other than that, immersed herself in work to get by.

But it's OK to make personal time a priority.

"It's probably among the hardest things to do because of the demands on your time," Howe says. "It's not at all selfish, it's self-preserving. People are no good if they're burnt out or frustrated. That's why it's important to involve siblings. Even people at a distance can do things that are helpful."

Though there is usually at least one child who lives close to elderly parents, today's far-flung society means more siblings have scattered across the country. However, being geographically distant does not diminish the importance of playing an active role in a parent's elder care.

Either financially or in visits, siblings can pick up a parent's spirits or come to the rescue of the sibling doing most of the caregiving.

"You have to be creative, certainly, and you have to be flexible," Ensor says.

Sacrifices and rewards

Merril Silverstein, associate professor of gerontology and sociology at University of Southern California, says caregiving means sacrifice but can be rewarding.

"I think the tone of caregiving literature is almost negative. The word burden almost always comes up," he says.

In Hispanic and Asian cultures, Silverstein says, caring for parents is looked on with pride. He said he has one student in her mid-20s who has decided not to marry "because she wanted to be there for her parents as they get frail, and this is something that is seen as honorable."

Forrest, whose uncle died last year at age 89, says the experience has made her stronger, and there were benefits to taking care of him.

For one, she got to know a man who was distant when she was younger. For another, she is better prepared for her own twilight years.

"He was a cantankerous, troublesome, stinky old guy, but I grew to learn something about love that you don't learn from hugs when you're young," Forrest says. "I hope to pass that on to my children. ... I'm a better person for what I did, and I'm a smarter person, and my children will be better off."

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