The Sandwich Generation

The Sandwich Generation

Originally published in Flourishing Mar Apr 2013

My mother passed away in 1991.  My father died in 1999.  When my mother was alive, my parents were fully self-sufficient.  Sure, my brother, sister, and I chipped in occasionally to help with minor home maintenance and other chores, but our parents could just as easily have paid a local handyman.  But, after Mother died, Dad’s health and cognitive ability steadily deteriorated; and Janet, Doug, and I became members of the sandwich generation.  That role has now passed to Janelle and her siblings.

Let me assure you right now that having to take over the financial and even lifestyle decisions for a parent who can no longer manage on his own is no fun at all.  Most people my age and older understand that, I suppose, and maybe that’s why we’re often reluctant to discuss our needs and fears with our adult children. But, it must be done.  And, the sandwich generation must often initiate the conversation.  At least, that was true in my parents’ case.  So, if the shoe fits:

When preparing to care for your parents, you’ll need to plan on at least three levels: managing finances, making health care decisions, and assuring that their daily household needs are met.  So, while your parents are able to communicate, I suggest that you try to initiate a conversation about how they would like their money to be managed. Rather than telling them what to do, though, be clear that you would like to help, and that you just want to make sure that their wishes are respected. You may be able to follow those wishes to the very letter, but be prepared to suggest alternatives as their needs change.

If you’re acting as financial agent or trustee for your parents, you’ll need access to bank and brokerage statements, insurance policies, and other financial documents to help safeguard your parents’ assets.  If your parents work with a financial advisor or estate planning attorney, you should try to arrange a meeting where everyone can review the situation.  If you’ll be paying your parents’ bills and managing their checkbook, arranging for direct deposit of Social Security and pension benefits, as well as electronic delivery of recurring bills, should be considered.

While your parents are still mentally competent, ask them about consulting a lawyer who can draft a Health Care Power of Attorney, a legal document designating you (or another person) to make decisions about medical care when they’re no longer able to do so. If your parents have strong opinions about end-of-life care, their wishes can be incorporated into a Living Will, another legal document.  I think I can assure you that they don’t  want to become Terri Shiavo or Ted Williams.  Everyone, of course, should have a current Will, and your parents should probably also consult an attorney to help them consider whether a Revocable Living Trust and  other legal structures—a life insurance trust, for example—are appropriate for their needs.

But, even without these documents, the medical establishment is likely to look to you or other siblings to make decisions about health care, which could include arranging for long-term care or making end-of-life decisions. As part of this process, find out what type of medical insurance your parents have and what it covers.  Your parents’ financial, legal, and tax advisors will need your help, too; but they can’t be as effective as they might like to be, if Mom and Dad haven’t put their plans in writing. Also, be sure that their beneficiary designations on IRA’s, life insurance policies, annuities, and other financial instruments are current and complete. 

If your parents are able to remain in their home, as mine were, you may need to consider helping them manage their medications (that was a big one for me), to conduct daily tasks such as bathing or meal preparation, and to make arrangements for assistance with household chores.  You probably won’t be able to do all of this yourself, so a visiting nurse and home care agency may be needed.  And, if either of your parents are ever afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease, you’ll probably need all the help you can get—and then some.

Caring for your parents can be gratifying in a way, because it provides the opportunity to return the unconditional love and support you received as a child, but it’s also time consuming and stressful.  And, I’ve just scratched the surface of the issues you may have to confront.  The best advice I can give you on this is to talk with them; and then prepare.  When you’re ready to start, I’ll be right here—ready to help.  mh