Getting Through the ‘Sandwich Years’

A few days ago, I was listening to the always enjoyable Talk of Iowa program on our local public radio station. They were having a discussion about growing old in Iowa, covering the fact that Iowa is considered the second best state to grow old in.

What really stuck with me, though, was the ensuing conversation about the challenges of caring for elderly parents. One caller in particular stuck in my head – she called in wondering about what help is available for those in the “sandwich generation.”

For those unaware, the “sandwich generation” refers to people who are simultaneously providing active support and care for both their children as they grow up and into adulthood and their parents who are beginning to need assistance in retirement. I’ve written about the sandwich generation in the past, but as time goes on, the subject becomes more and more of interest to me.

Right now, Sarah and I have three kids at home. The youngest one won’t graduate high school for another decade, and we’ll likely have some significant role in their lives during their college years (and, ideally, continue to have some role as they grow fully into their adult lives).

At the same time, my parents are retired and my wife’s parents are actively talking about the prospect. My father, who is the oldest of our four parents, is in his seventies and, although he still gets around well, isn’t in the most perfect health any more. If either of my own parents dies, the other one is going to struggle with single life – they are very dependent on each other.

We are the sandwich generation, and we’re figuring it out as we go along.

Luckily, we have learned a few really valuable things already in this journey, things that have already made a huge positive impact on the way things are right now and how things will go going forward. If you find yourself looking down the road to a point where you’ll be in the “sandwich generation,” here are some things to start considering.

First, reflect on what you want.

This is the absolute first step in this process. You need to step back, look at the broad situation, and think about what you want your role to be in all of this.

How involved do you want to be in the care of your parents as they decline? Are you willing to be a caregiver? Are you willing to move into their home, or have them move into your home, during their final years? Are you willing to provide some level of financial support to ease their day-to-day life?

How involved do you want to be in your children’s lives as they go through college and then progress into adulthood? Are you going to be their advocate on difficult issues? Are you going to be their primary support channel? How much financial support are you going to provide for their college education and for their life beyond?

Those are issues you need to decide, and you need to figure out your philosophy on those issues well before you’re actually faced with them. Start thinking about it now, while your children are young and your parents are still in good physical and mental condition.

If you have a spouse, start having very deep conversations about these issues with them and openly share all of your thoughts on these issues. Is it really tenable to have your mother-in-law move in with you? How would that even work in a way that would be tolerable for everyone? Are you on the same page with giving your children money during and after college?

Not only will you discover if you’re in agreement on those issues, you’ll also lay the groundwork for working together to make sure you have an approach that you both agree with, that you can represent together to the outside world, and that you can work on implementing together.

Communication is vital; start it now.

Right off the bat, you need to make absolutely sure that you have open and trusting communication with your parents, your spouse, your children, and other key stakeholders in all of this. None of you should be hiding things from one another, because doing that does nothing but ensure that really poor decisions will be made.

If you’re hiding feelings, if you’re hiding financial truths, if you’re hiding health issues, if you’re hiding academic issues, if you’re hiding professional issues – the end result is going to be that people will be making choices that can result in disaster for all involved.

This can be hard to do because it usually ends up resulting in people admitting their flaws and difficulties. All of us want to put on the best face possible. We all want to look strong and successful and coordinated… but, as we all know, that’s not always true. The strongest person can be hiding a health issue. The most affluent person can be hiding a mountain of debt. The happiest person can be hiding depression. The successful person can be hiding a career in crisis.

The thing is, among those core people in your life, you have to let go of that need to put up a false picture. You have to be yourself and tell the truth about yourself, because without that, you have people that you are deeply trusting making decisions that impact you based on false information about you.

If there’s a recipe for financial and personal disaster, it’s that.

Right now, sit down with your parents and put everything on the table. What do the finances look like? What state are your parents in in terms of being able to support themselves? What state are you in in terms of being able to help them? What health issues are lurking that might change this? How stable is the situation, on both sides? What does the insurance look like?

Furthermore, how willing are both sides? What help can you really provide without creating unacceptable problems in other areas of your life? How involved do you really want to be? (This is something you should be thinking about deeply on your own outside of conversations.) How willing are your parents to accept that help?

This is not a fun conversation. It never is. It’s difficult, and people always put it off far longer than they should, until problems are right on the doorstep. Don’t let it go that long.

Another important thing to remember is that this isn’t a one-off conversation. It’s a starting point, one that should continue as a conversation for the rest of your lives. When things change, you communicate them with the other people who rely on that information.

This holds true for you and your parents, at least, and for your children as they’re beginning their adult lives. Naturally, younger children don’t need to know all of the ins and outs of everything, and there’s little need for children to know the details of their grandparents’ health or financial issues in any detailed way.

Beyond this, there’s a second and third ring of people that need to be involved in conversations. Your siblings should be involved, too, as they likely have a role in caring for your parents as well. What is their role? What can they do? How involved should they be – or do they want to be?

You should maintain contact with other key stakeholders, like the people who would become guardians for your children should you pass away suddenly. They should at least know the basics of what’s going on with your children along the way, though full openness may not be needed.

Plan out different scenarios.

Another valuable thing you can do as you enter the sandwich years is to start planning out various scenarios. If you’re asking yourself “what would you do if…” and then thinking about realistic responses, you’re in the right area.

Here are some to get you started.

What would I/we do if my mother passes away?
What would I/we do if my father passes away?
What would I/we do if my mother needs constant medical care?
What would I/we do if my father needs constant medical care?
What would I/we do if my mother-in-law passes away?
What would I/we do if my father-in-law passes away?
What would I/we do if my mother-in-law needs constant medical care?
What would I/we do if my father-in-law needs constant medical care?

What would I/we do if our child gets into a top flight but very expensive school?
What would I/we do if our child doesn’t get into any good school at all and chooses a non-collegiate path?
What would I/we do if our child continues to need financial support to keep themselves fed? How long do we continue to help, and in what situations?

Are all of these solutions compatible with each other? Can multiple scenarios work at once?

You should be planning out these scenarios carefully, not because everything will go exactly according to plan, but because it leads you down a path of understanding what you will need to do when something similar occurs. Some of these things will occur, after all, and having already considered how you will handle those situations will help greatly when deciding what to do as those events transpire.

Get your financial house in order sooner rather than later.

Here’s the cold, hard truth: You don’t want to be in a situation where your parents or children really need your help and you spent it all a few years ago on ski trips or a fashionable wardrobe. That is a position that you will regret for the rest of your life.

Right now, before you’re pressed into the middle of that sandwich, you have choices on your plate that will shape your options when you find yourself there. If you start preparing financially now, you’ll be able to handle whatever is thrown at you in those situations and, if the situations go well, you’ll have plenty of resources left over.

Not only are there financial considerations, there are also quality-of-life considerations. Do you have a career path that has flexible working hours? What about paid family leave? Some career paths even have jobs with child care and senior care benefits. Those should be part of the consideration when deciding on your next career stop or two, not just salary.

On the other hand, if you don’t prepare now, you may just find yourself facing situations that you can’t resolve because you’ve spent so much of your money already on unnecessary things.

All I can say is that right now, on the precipice of a lot of hard decisions, I am incredibly heartened by the fact that we have made choices that will make the upcoming years easier. Our retirement savings is relatively secure. Our children each have savings for education.

Those choices were difficult choices, all the way along. It is really easy to listen to the demands and desires of everyday life rather than pay attention to the big picture. My best suggestion here is to simply keep all of this fresh in your mind. Reflect on it regularly. Ask yourself if the momentary pleasures of today really amount to much compared to that big picture. Don’t deny yourself all pleasures, but toss off some of the smaller ones.

Devote time to self-education for both sides of the sandwich.

Another key part of this is education. Start learning about the realities of both sides of the sandwich.

What are your children’s options going to look like when they approach adulthood? Is college going to be the right choice for them? What are the educational opportunities that they’re going to have before them? What are those educational opportunities going to cost? What kind of financial aid will be available? How much will be expected from you?

There are even more questions to ask yourself on your parent’s side. You’re going to want to know the ins and outs of Medicare, of their various insurance options, of their medical choices. That means staying abreast of the ongoing changes in healthcare law. You’re also going to want to know at least the basics of their finances and who exactly should be contacted (perhaps you) in terms of their power of attorney later on in life. Do they have a will? Do they have a trust, if needed? How do they get those set up?

There’s also you, in the middle. What are your rights and responsibilities as a child when your parents grow old? What about retirement planning for yourself? Insurance options?

There are a ton of things to learn about, far more than I could get into here. I suggest getting started at your local library and checking out some key books like The Family Guide to Aging Parents by Carolyn Rosenblatt and How to Care for Aging Parents by Virginia Morris, for starters, along with volumes like How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims.

Start reading and educating and thinking now, even if you’re not quite in the sandwich generation yet. If you are, it’s even more important.

Find the right team – and get to know them now.

You’re not alone in this situation. There are a lot of people around you who are going to play a role in the decisions to be made going forward, and you’re better off at least knowing who those people are and making decisions about them now rather than later.

You’ll want to know who your parents’ primary care physician is. You may even want to visit with this doctor so that you know who he or she is, as you may end up interacting with this doctor quite a lot in the coming years.

You’ll likely want to have a family practice lawyer available. If you don’t have a family lawyer, consult your friends and see who they use and recommend. Establish that relationship now so you know who to tap when the time comes.

Other professionals may be of use as well: psychologists, accountants, perhaps even a funeral director. Knowing who to contact in each of those situations and having that information ready to go is useful.

Never forget – you were the child once, and you’ll be the parent someday.

This all seems like an incredible amount of work and worry – and I won’t lie to you, it is.

However, having said that, keep a few things in mind.

First, you were a child once. Your parents did many of these things for you. They thought through these issues when you were bobbing through your childhood and teen years and early adulthood. Most of the time, they did the best they could do to help you. This is now a time to repay some of that to your parents, and to pay it forward to your own children.

Second, you will be old someday. You want to invest in your children now so that they’ll make helpful calls when they’re in the sandwich generation someday. At the same time, your children are watching you to see what you do in this situation. How you treat your parents is going to inform your children on how they should treat you when the time comes.

Third, and perhaps most important, the most valuable thing you can do for yourself is to ensure that you sleep at night with the clearest conscience possible. Yes, this might mean foregoing some pleasures right now. If the choice is between fun during the day or a sound sleep with a good conscience at night, choose the sound sleep at night. You’ll forget about the frivolous things, but the important ones will stick with you.

You were a child once. You will be old someday. Remember what your parents did for you as a child, and strive to do at least as good for your own children. Help your parents now, so that perhaps your children will help you when the time comes.

In other words, if you must be the center of a sandwich, be the best sandwich center you can possibly be.

Good luck.

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Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.