The “sandwich generation” isn’t like Generation X or the Pepsi generation. It isn’t about when you were born or what you consume. It describes your family responsibilities. People in the sandwich generation have at least one parent age 65 or older and are also either raising a minor child or supporting an adult child.
Nearly half of adults in their 40s and 50s fit these criteria. They find themselves providing financial and emotional support to two generations while also meeting their own needs and saving for retirement.
Fulfilling these responsibilities can be a physical, emotional, and financial burden.
What Supporting an Older Parent Looks Like
A 2013 Pew Research Center study found that 32 percent of adults provided at least some financial support to their parents in the previous year. Most of those (72 percent) helped their parents with an ongoing expense, suggesting that the support was not a one-time gift.
The likelihood that a person is supporting an older parent is inversely correlated with income. Families with lower household incomes are more likely to support aging parents, who, presumably, also have lower incomes and greater needs.
The survey also found that 23 percent of adults in their 40s or 50s provide some care or are the primary caregiver to an aging parent, and 78 percent expect to provide care to a parent or older relative in the future.
Acting as a caregiver comes with its own costs. A study published in GeroPsych: The Journal of Gerontopsychology and Geriatric Psychiatry (summarized in this Psychology Today article) found that caring for a parent with dementia was associated with an increase in irritability, a decrease in time spent on hobbies and other recreational activities, and a worsening of the caregiver’s personal health.
What Supporting an Adult Child Looks Like
Supporting an adult child has become more common in recent years, more common even than supporting an older adult, yet those who support an adult child receive far less social support.
The 2013 Pew study found that, between 2005 and 2012, the proportion of sandwich-generation adults providing primary support to an adult child increased from 20 percent to 27 percent. The proportion providing at least some support grew from 42 percent to 48 percent over the same time period.
A 2016 Pew study found that the most common living arrangement for adults age 18 to 34 is living with their parents, the first time that has happened in 130 years.
These results seem at odds with social expectation. The 2013 Pew study found that fully 75 percent of Americans believe it is an adult child’s responsibility to support an aging parent who is in need, but only 53 percent said the same about a parent supporting their adult children.
What Supporting Minor Children Looks Like
Balancing the care of older parents with the care of young children can be especially difficult both financially and emotionally.
The cost of raising a child to age 18 is $233,610, and that doesn’t count saving for college. Raising children also requires an emotional and time investment, two commodities that are stretched then when a parent is also caring for grandma or grandpa.
A couple of ways caregivers in the sandwich generation can approach things is to involve their children in the care of the grandparent. Older children might be able to chauffer to doctor appointments or do yard work. Younger children can help with little things, like bringing their grandparent a blanket or picking up things from the floor that might get tripped over.
What Supporting Multiple Generations Looks Like
Most adults are supporting either a parent or a child. However, 8 percent of adults are supporting both, the 2013 Pew study found. Among adults in their 40s and 50s, that number rises to 15 percent.
Beyond finances, the study found that 55 percent of adults in their 40s and 50s provide emotional support to both an older parent and an adult child. Further, the study showed that providing emotional support is more likely if the adult child is also providing care or financial support. The obligations are likely to come as a package.
The cost of that support is more than just financial. Adults who are providing support to both parents and children report feeling much more stress than other adults.
An American Psychological Association report about its 2007 stress survey stated that nearly 40 percent of adults aged 35 to 54 (its definition of “sandwich generation”) reported feeling “extreme” levels of stress. This compares with 29 percent for younger adults and 25 percent for older adults.
However, one silver lining is that the GeroPsych study found that the adverse consequences of caring for an older parent were not worsened when the person was also supporting an adult child.
How to Cope with Being in the Sandwich Generation
The American Psychological Association offers suggestions in its report for how to manage the stress of caregiving for multiple generations.
They include identifying what triggers the stressful feelings, recognizing unhealthy coping mechanisms, finding healthier coping strategies, and practicing self-care.
People in the sandwich generation don’t always have control over the responsibilities they face. But careful attention to their own health and recognizing that they don’t have to do it all can go a long way toward making that burden easier to shoulder.
If you’d like to learn more about the true costs of being a family caregiver, common family conflicts that can occur when caring for parents, and some of the unexpected challenges of caregiving, download our “11 Most Common Caregiving Challenges” eBook.