Did Grinch steal your retirement?

Are you a member of the sandwich generation? It’s easy to tell. You work and save hard but can’t rest easy and enjoy the rewards. You’re too busy taking care of the needs of your ageing parents and your (supposedly) grown-up kids. Welcome to this widespread boomer dilemma: too tired, too busy, too financially stretched to enjoy any sort of fun retirement.

So how did it all go so wrong?

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that nearly a quarter of middle-aged adults are caring for ageing parents while their children still live at home – it’s a product of increased longevity that many of our parents are living into their 90s and beyond. And if we are financially independent and have time, this can be a marvellous opportunity to give back the love that our parents have given us.

But not everyone is in a position to become a carer. And many retirees are too financially strapped to provide the support that their parents may need for a deposit for an aged care facility.

Challenges for those in the sandwich generation can hit in many ways – your mental or physical health, your ability to maintain a full-time job and full-time income, your patience, privacy and sense of peace. It can really bring you down, particularly those noble souls who give up their occupation to care for a parent or older relative with dementia. In some cases, it may also be a spouse with early onset dementia – there is nothing fair in this situation, yet many do put their own lives on hold to care for those close to them with great love and attention. 

The other side of the sandwich refers to the demands of adult children. Back in the day, most of us had left our parents’ home to fend for ourselves, either by marrying or by moving into a share home. It was rare to move back home again, regardless of what life threw at you. Divorce, penury, job loss –  you were too proud to head back to Mum and Dad’s place. Or maybe you just enjoyed your independence.

Well, times change and so do the nature of relationships. Many boomers who grew up in the 50s and 60s experienced authoritarian parents. Boomer parents, by contrast, often err on the side of being friends first, and parents second. So the family home has become a base from which young adults venture out, and back, and out, and back again. Many bring home ‘significant others’ so the household has two or more couples. Some pay board, but many do not. And it is becoming very common for adult children to live at home until they are 30 or older. So what does this do to the ‘meat’ in the sandwich? The parents? It significantly reduces their opportunity to save for a retirement which may extend for 30 years or more. If the adult children do pay board, it often doesn’t cover all expenses including rent or rates, energy bills, food and maintenance. It also significantly reduces the parents’ opportunity to simply kick back and relax as they are often still ‘parenting’ which may involve driving, cooking, cleaning and other activities that the grown-up children are more than capable of doing for themselves.

It is true that multi-generational households are very traditional and can provide a strong support and source of great love and companionship.

But that probably happens most often when all members pull their weight, both financially and with the home maintenance.

So how should you manage your family commitments in a fair and reasonable manner? It’s obviously a very personal decision as to who lives in your home, and how much you feel you should help an older parent or support your grownup children.

For those with ageing parents these are big decisions, best tackled with the cooperation of your siblings, while your parents are still able to make the fundamental decisions and share their wishes.

It is important to understand, with their permission, their financial situation and what this will cover if the time comes for in-home care or, care in an aged care facility accommodation.

It is also entirely fair to expect the grandchildren to pitch in and help when and where necessary.

How you support your adult children is again a very personal decision, best made as a couple if that is your situation. This may require tact, negotiation and compromise. But as with all parenting, a united front goes a long way.  Consider also the funding necessary for your later years and whether you have already invested enough in your children through primary, secondary and perhaps tertiary education, cars and other gifts, etc. If so, it may be hard to cut those apron strings, but perhaps it’s smart to create a household budget and expect board which fully recognises the costs of the extra people. Consider also whether you are happy to live ‘en famille’ for the foreseeable future, or if you and your partner may find more joy in the state of empty nesting. Yes, if your kids are still studying you may believe it is a little soon to tip them out, but it’s never too soon to start planning it. And it’s always worth checking whether there is any financial assistance that you, or they, may be entitled to if you are a carer, or if your young adult is a student. In fact, it’s always the case that knowing your rights and being prepared to assert yourself is often the best way to tackle life’s tricky stages – ‘sandwich’ years included.

Is this your situation? Are your mum and dad still alive? Who cares for them? What about your kids? Grown up but ‘failing to launch’? 

Related articles:
Who cares for the carers?
More parents footing the bill

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