Feel like a sandwich?

Ever feel like you’re caught between a rock and a hard place? Or worse, wedged firmly between two slices of stale bread with no chance of escape? Well, you’re not alone. In fact, statistics show that around 20% of adults are now caring for their aged parents (in some form or another) whilst at the same time trying to raise their own families, giving rise to what has now become known as the Sandwich Generation. The Sandwich Generation is a relatively new term simply because it’s a relatively new concept! Let’s do the maths: If you’re in you’re between the ages of 40 and 60, then your children are somewhere between teenage-hood and their late twenties. Your parents are in their 70s or beyond, and they’re going to live much longer than ever anticipated! It’s a known fact that incredible advances in disease management and medicine mean that all expectations of human longevity have been surpassed by our silent generation parents. The result is that, as the sandwich’s filling, we’re still raising our children, seeing them through university and helping them launch their careers, while at the same time taking care of our parents’ ever-increasing financial, emotional and physical needs. All of this while holding down our own jobs or careers, and pursuing our own dreams. In fact, for some of us, our plate is so full we can’t help feeling like a super-sized club sandwich.

The emergence of the Sandwich Generation is one of the key reasons we practice what we refer to as multi-generation financial planning. This process includes understanding the financial needs of, not only the couple that we’re advising, but their parents as well. The reality is that much of the emotional stress and financial pressure suffered by the Sandwich Generation could be significantly reduced if caring for ones aged parents had been planned for as part of the process. Speaking to members of the Sandwich Generation, the consensus is that it’s not looking after their aged parents that is a problem – it’s the fact that their initiation into the Sandwich Generation took them by complete surprise! As I’ve discussed before, the biggest shortcoming of the Silent Generation is that they don’t talk – about their health, their finances, their emotional well-being or anything else of a personal nature. This doesn’t bode well for their Baby Boomer child who has a vested interest in knowing whether his parents have enough retirement savings, what their future medical costs are going to be or whether they’re going to need private nursing or frail care anytime soon. The reality is that any significant change (for the worse) in your parents’ health, emotional well-being or financial status has the potential to completely re-design your existing lifestyle whether you’re prepared for it or not!

If you’re a member of the Sandwich Generation, here are some useful tips for you:

  1. No surprise sandwiches: Whether you’re a member of the Sandwich Generation or a potential member, our advice is to make sure that there are no more surprises in store for you. Make it your priority to understand your parents’ finances, their health, their medical aid, their expenses, their Will, and all other matters relating to their personal circumstances. You may want to consider asking your personal financial planner to take over your parents’ financial affairs (if they’re happy with that). This will allow your financial planner to view your parents’ finances and your finances (in particular your own retirement funding) in full overview, and will give him more insight into advising you into your financial future. Having your financial planner in control of both sets of finances is a good mechanism to put in place to help avoid any future financial surprises.
  2. Get the power: Depending on the status of your parents’ health, you may need to obtain a Power of Attorney to give you permission to manage their financial matters, legal affairs and healthcare on their behalf. It is relatively easy to obtain a General Power of Attorney in South Africa. A Power of Attorney will give you great peace of mind that you are able to manage the affairs on behalf of your parents. Consolidating both sets of financial matters with a single financial planner, together with obtaining a General Power of Attorney over their affairs, will greatly alleviate the financial and legal pressures that you may be faced with.
  3. Scenario plan: While your parents are still healthy and of sound mind, try and talk to them about their future. This is often best done in the context of scenarios planning – asking a whole series of ‘what if’ questions. What if one of you needs frail care? How do you feel about a retirement village? Would you prefer a frail care home or a private nurse? There’s no doubt that your parents have spoken to each other about their old age and what plans they’d like to put in place. Make sure that they share these plans with you – after all, you’re the one who is most likely going to  implement the plans for them. Find out how they feel about retirement villages, frail care, down-scaling their home, private nursing, no longer driving, what happens when one of them passes away, moving in with you, and all the other potential issues that you may have to face up to in the future. Our advice is to deal with them now so that you’re more prepared – both emotionally and financially – for the future.
  4. Family first: Looking after your aged parents, especially if they live with you, can tax every aspect of your life – and the life of your children. A recurring theme in the realm of surviving the Sandwich Generation is to put your own family first. While this may sound like stating the very obvious, only those adults who have lived with their aging parents know how hard it can be to make sure your children come first. Real life scenarios such as missing your son’s hockey match because your mother has fallen and injured her hip will test your resolve to ensure that your own children come first. The reality with living with or caring for the aged is that their emergency healthcare needs may sometimes have to take priority over the needs of your family. Our advice is to sit down with your children and explain everything to them. It will help that they know exactly what is medically wrong with granny or grandpa, and what medical interventions or emergencies can be anticipated. It’s important they understand that, unless in the face of a medical emergency, they are still your number one priority. Caring for your aged parents is, however, a valuable lesson in love and family loyalty that your children can learn from and put into practice one day when you are frail.
  5. All things medical: Understanding your parents’ medical condition is also pivotal to managing their personal affairs into the future, and avoiding any unnecessary surprises along the way. Once you know their medical history and current status, it is imperative that you understand what medical aid (and plan option) they belong to. Make contact with the medical aid administrators and find out essential information such as procedures for emergency admissions, frail care nursing benefits, post-operative rehabilitation benefits, the costs of radiology and pathology, and any other benefits that are essential for the aged. Secondly, build relationships with their medical professionals as this will be of huge value when discussing and planning their future healthcare needs. The doctors and specialists will most likely appreciate your involvement in their lives and will become comfortable discussing matters with you (with your parents’ permission). Thirdly, we strongly recommend that you explore frail care and private nursing options long before you may need them. There is a drastic shortage of high quality frail care facilities in this country and the waiting lists for these institutions can be depressingly long. Similarly, it may take a while to find the frail care nurse who meets all your parents’ requirements, so we recommend that you begin exploring these options even before they become an imminent requirement.
  6. Education funding: Fund for your children’s education – without exception! Make sure that, regardless of the needs of the generation above you, the generation beneath you is not compromised in any way when it comes to their education. Dipping into your children’s education funding to finance your aged parents is never a good idea, and we strongly recommend that you find alternative solutions. As parents, you have a responsibility to provide your children with the best possible education which, in turn, will help them develop successful careers. Compromising your child’s future to help fund for your parents’ retirement will only serve to exacerbate the Sandwich Generation problem, not solve it! Ring-fence your children’s education funding and keep it safe.
  7. Talk to your employer: Somewhere between raising your children and caring for your aging parents comes your own job and career. The irony of it all is that your job (or ability to earn an income) is pivotal for holding all the generations together, and yet it’s the one aspect of your life that can be severely compromised if your employer doesn’t understand your personal circumstances. While we don’t recommend airing your personal laundry at the office, we do recommend that your employer fully understands your circumstances before you start dropping the corporate ball. Keeping your employer informed regarding your personal matters means they’re more likely to understand if you suddenly need to dash out the office to take granny to hospital. It also means that you and your employer can put contingency plans in place if you ever need to be out of the office at short notice.
  8. Look for support groups: There are literally hundreds of charities, institutions, organisations and Churches that have support groups for the aged and the frail, as well as the families of the aged parents. Many adults feel completely lost and overwhelmed when finding themselves (sometimes by surprise) in the Sandwich Generation, and many feel isolated and alone. The statistics, however, show that 1 out of every 5 adults is looking after their aged parent – either financially or physically – so the reality is that you’re not alone! Find the support groups in your community and get help. No one ever said you needed to do this on your own.
  9. Ask for help and delegate: Many people attest to feeling tremendous guilt at not being able to do more for their aged parents. The reality is that you need to protect your income (your job), put your children first to ensure that their best interests are protected, and then put sufficient plans in place to make sure that your parents’ needs are attended to. This will no doubt mean (a) delegating and (b) asking for help from friends and family – not easy things to do for some people! Instead of feeling personally responsible, ensure that your family understands that you all have a joint responsibility to look after granny and grandpa. Give your children things to do that can help you – such as getting them to make grandpa’s tea or reading to granny. By getting the whole family involved you can create a sense of unity, common purpose and instill the concept that family looks after family.
  10. Roll out the Welcome mat: If you make the (albeit difficult) decision to move your parents into your home, make sure you do it with a happy heart and that the whole family welcomes them with open arms. Don’t allow your (or your family’s) behaviour to make your parents feel as though they are not welcome or that they are an unwelcome burden to you. If you’ve made the decision to have them live with you, then embrace it and make sure your home is a happy place for them (and you) to be.
  11. Give them a job: They may be aging and slightly frail, but everyone wants to feel like a valuable, productive member of society (and the household). You’ll be amazed at how many meaningful chores you can find for them to do! Polishing your silverware, sorting out your sewing cupboard, helping the kids with homework, brushing the dogs or folding the washing. Getting them involved will make them feel as though they are making a positive contribution to the family – and they will be!
  12. Celebrate family: When it all seems too much to bear, consider the phrase ‘this too shall pass’. While having to support your parents – whether financially, physically or emotionally – may be seriously draining, it’s something that won’t last forever. For sure, having three generations living under one roof (or on the same property) can present its own set of challenges, but it can also be the source of much laughter, fun, inter-generational bonding and incredible family unity. While you still have your parents with you, enjoy them and celebrate your family together.

Someone once said, “I don’t care how poor a man is; if he has family, he is rich”. If you consider your aging parents to be a source of richness in your life, you will surely be greatly blessed.

Warm regards


If you have family, consider yourself to be rich.

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