Women: Living in the Sandwich Generation-Part 1

At a time when your career is reaching a peak and you are looking ahead to your own retirement, you may find yourself in the position of having to help your children with college expenses or the financial challenges of young adulthood while at the same time looking after the needs of your aging parents. Squeezed in the middle, you're in the "sandwich generation"--a group loosely defined as people in their 40s to 60s who are "sandwiched" between caring for children and aging parents.

The fact is, women are the ones who most often step into the caregiving role.*  As more women have children later in life and more parents live longer lives, the ranks of the sandwich generation are likely to grow in the years ahead. If you find yourself sandwiched between caregiving demands, here are some strategies to navigate this life phase.

Setting priorities

The day-to-day demands of caring for an aging parent and children can put a tremendous strain--both emotional and financial--on the primary caregiver.  This is especially true when adult siblings or family members don't agree on the best course of action for elder care, don't pitch in to do their share, or don't contribute enough financially to the cost of that care.

The first thing to do is get yourself in the proper mindset. This life phase could last one or two years, or it could last many more. In any case, try to treat this stage as a marathon and pace yourself; you don't want to start sprinting right out of the gate and burn out too soon.

Encourage open communication with your family to figure out ways to share the financial, emotional, and time burdens. Hold regular meetings to discuss issues, set priorities, and delegate tasks. Women are often conditioned to believe they have to "do it all," but there is no reason why adult siblings (if you have any) can't share at least some of the workload.

It's important for caregivers to get their own financial house in order. Ironically, at the very time you need to do this, the demands of caregiving may cause you to lose income because you have to step back at work--through reduced hours, unpaid time off, or turning down a promotion. Here are some tips to get our finances on track:

• Establish a budget and stick to it.

• Keep your debt under control. Consumer debt (i.e., car payments, credit cards) should account for no more than 20% of your take-home pay.

• Invest in your own future by putting as much as you can into your retirement plan, and avoid raiding it to pay for your parent's care or your child's college education.

• Don't quit your job before exploring other arrangements. If you need more time at home than vacation or personal days can provide, ask your employer if you can telecommute, flex your hours, reduce your hours temporarily, or take unpaid leave. Another option is to enroll your parent in an adult day-care program or hire a home health aide to fill the gaps. Some employers offer elder-care resource locators or other caregiving support as an employee benefit, so make sure to check. Permanently leaving your job should be a last resort--time out of the workforce will reduce not only your earnings but possibly your Social Security benefit at retirement as well.

*The National Clearinghouse for Long-Term Care

Stay tuned next week for details on caring for your parents, your children, and yourself as a member of the Sandwich Generation!

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