Unsticking the Sandwich Generation – Hold the Mayo

May 10th, 2007

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My father-in-law is 77. My son is almost 2.

Thirty years ago, having this combination of aging parents and very young children would have been unusual. Today, it’s increasingly the norm.
A number of demographic trends are driving this rise in “sandwich generation” families. On one end is the fact that women are marrying and bearing children later in life; on the other is that people are living longer in retirement. In 1975, the average birth mother was 24; today she’s 28. In 1989, fewer than two in three adults between the ages of 41 and 59 had at least one living parent. Today, it’s nearly three in four.

In our report, The New Rules Economy, we noted that one of the most significant new challenges faced by modern families is the challenge of balancing work and family. Adding to this complexity is that a growing number of families are caring not only for young children but for aging parents. And because public policy has yet to catch up with this phenomenon, sandwich families are largely making do on their own.

Some forward-thinking policymakers, however, are working to unstick the bind these families are in. Next week, the Joint Economic Committee, chaired by Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), will be holding a hearing on the obligations of senior caregivers and how public policy can help.
It’s a critical issue for middle-class families that deserves the attention of Congress. Consider, for example, the following:

  • Most seniors will need some form of long-term care (whether it’s help with shopping or a stay at a nursing home) at some point in their lives. On average, people can expect to need about three years of care.
  • Family and friends provide most of the long-term care seniors receive. Fifty-seven percent of seniors who get long-term care receive only informal care from unpaid caregivers. The value of unpaid care in fact outweighs federal spending on Medicare and Medicaid for long-term care.
  • Many family caregivers have to sacrifice earnings or career prospects to care for aging relatives. A majority of senior caregivers are also holding down jobs, and surveys find that two-thirds say they’ve had to rearrange their work schedules, decrease their hours or take unpaid leave.
  • Paid care, on the other hand, can be prohibitively expensive. The average annual cost of a private room in a nursing home is about $79,000. The average lifetime cost of long-term care per senior is about $47,000 (not counting the value of “free” care provided by family and friends). Long-term care also already swallows up a big portion of our health care spending—one in eight dollars—and that proportion will only increase as the senior population grows.

Solving the problem of helping families care for aging relatives won’t be easy. It will involve a complete rethinking of how our nation plans for and pays for the needs of a growing population of seniors in retirement. The answer, however, will be critical to helping middle-class families succeed in the new rules economy.