They’re known as the “sandwich generation:” people simultaneously caring for aging parents and children still living at home.
They are typically in their 40s and 50s, and according to U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), they’ve been all but ignored by policymakers.
On Monday, Casey held a hearing in Pittsburgh to learn more about the experiences of people in the “sandwich generation” and to hear from social service and healthcare professionals about potential policy changes that could ease the burden of those caring for both parents and children.
Tom Moore, 64, of Ross Township and his wife Becky have four children between the ages of 18 and 23, two of whom are on the autism spectrum. The couple also cares for Becky’s 89-year-old mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Until recently, Moore’s mother-in-law lived on her own down the street from the family. Before reluctantly placing her in a nursing facility, Moore said he was overwhelmed by the responsibility of caring for two homes and two generations of family members.
“There are rarely long evenings out as a couple,” Moore said. “There are never vacations as a couple, or even as a family. Taking care of your own needs becomes the lowest priority, because you’re too busy seeing to everyone else’s needs.”
According to Mildred Morrison, administrator of Allegheny County’s Area Agency on Aging, the picture of the average caretaker has changed over the last 50 years. At that time, most family caretakers were married women whose children were already grown and had moved out. They often did not work outside the home, and they generally cared for ailing parents in their own home for roughly two years before the parents passed away.
Now, said Morrison, the typical caretaker is in a much different situation.
“She works full time and that income is essential for her household,” Morrison said. “Her children may have been born later and therefore are more likely to still be at home. Furthermore, those beloved parents are far older and frailer, but wish to remain in their own homes.”
The stress of caring for two generations at once can have serious health effects, said Dr. Charles Reynolds, a professor of geriatric psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh.
“Over time, as people become heavy duty caregivers, their health declines more rapidly than non-caregivers,” said Reynolds. “Indeed, we have learned that caregiving can be a risk for mortality in its own right.”
In addition to emotional and psychological costs, Casey said there is an economic impact for those who find themselves in the “sandwich generation.” A 2007 study National Alliance for Caregiving found that the average out of pocket cost associated with caring for an aging parent was $5,531 per year. According to the MetLife Mature Market Institute, average wage losses due to taking time off from work to care for an aging parent total $324,044 for women and $283,716 for men.
Casey pointed out that such costs diminish the buying power of caregivers, which has a negative impact on the U.S. economy as a whole.
But even more than money, Sister Barbara Ann Boss said caregivers need time to themselves. Boss is the CEO of the Seton Center for Intergenerational Programming, which provides both adult daycare and childcare, among other social services.
“This generation needs respite time, or they become overwhelmed and stressed,” Boss said. “An overwhelmed and stressed caretaker is not able to give quality care to parent or child.”
Casey closed the hearing by asking for ideas about policy initiatives that will help close the gap for those in the “sandwich generation.”
Moore and Boss both said that the services available to families need to be better publicized. Morrison suggested that a publicity campaign for adult daycare services could do the trick, because such centers can act as a gateway for other programming and services.
Casey added that he is currently working on a bill to create a “Caregiver Corps,” a program that would train volunteers to care for the elderly, in order to give people like Tom Moore and his wife Becky an opportunity to go out to dinner once in a while.