'Sandwich generation' saddled with care of elders and children

Originally published in the Gazette and the Vancouver Sun on May 4th, 2010. To see the original story online please click here

Joanne Hough moved her family to Ottawa from Manitoba 10 years ago to help care for her aging mother, who was experiencing the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. With four kids between the ages of 10 and 20 still living at home, Hough says dividing her caregiving roles wasn’t easy, but she has found ways to manage.

Hough, 46, is part of a growing demographic within the baby boomers (people born between 1947 and 1966) referred to as the “sandwich generation.” While elderly people are benefiting from rising life expectancies, their children — often parents themselves — are “sandwiched” in the middle, caring for two generations. The obligation to act as a caregiver to both parents and children can exact both emotional and financial tolls.

Hough, who works at an office job three days a week, says a strong family support system — which includes two brothers in B.C. and a sister in Alberta — has helped to ease the emotional strain she experiences as her mother’s main support. The four siblings hold conference calls for major decisions about her living arrangements.

And her mother’s financial situation has allowed Hough to move her into a long-term care facility and hire a caregiver to visit her regularly. Knowing her mother’s daily basic needs are being met has given Hough peace of mind, especially when she can’t visit.

“I don’t know how I’d do it without [the service],” says Hough. “I try to plan ahead, but it’s comforting to know someone’s there taking her for walks.”

Not everyone in Hough’s situation is so lucky.

According to a recent survey by Investors Group, 69 per cent of Canadians age 43 to 63 years of age have at least one living parent or parent-in-law, and about one-third of this group are providing care for them. Duties were found to range from financial support to everyday activities such as household chores, providing companionship and transportation to appointments. Roughly a third of these caregivers are parents, the survey found, and in many cases their eldercare responsibilities cost a portion of their incomes — some up to $6,000 per year.

David Foot, a professor of economics at the University of Toronto, says the people most likely to have dual obligations are around the age of 50 -the peak of the baby boomer generation.

“In many cases, their own children still haven’t left home and their parents are getting into ill health,” says Foot.

To add to the pressure, many are still working full-time jobs, which led a recent Senate of Canada committee to recommend allowing these caregivers to take breaks from work similar to child care leaves.

Obligations of a dual caregiver may seem daunting, but there are ways to manage so the responsibility doesn’t become overwhelming, says Terri Benincasa, a personal-transition coach who specializes in boomer issues.

“The part that tends to be the most draining is when you don’t have the help you need,” she says. “You’re running around like a chicken with your head cut off because you haven’t used your resources and your family.”