WMW: Ages and Stages
This post is a part of Women’s Money Week 2012. For more posts about Ages & Stages, see womensmoneyweek.com.
I recently received a letter from a woman who had to live through the angst of nursing her dying mother while raising six-year-old twins. It got me thinking about how families have changed. It used to be Mom was completely healthy and independent well past the time when Junior was heading off to university or his first job. Nowadays, late stage marriages and remarriages mean that the old family portrait looks quite different from today’s snapshot. And what was supposed an empty nest is bursting at the seams as aging parents, young children, divorcing children with their own young ‘uns, and kids home from university all fighting for space and attention.
Boomers are the sandwich generation, squished from both sides and spewing out the edges. In helping to launch our children into happy and responsible adulthood, we are expected to help them assume financial responsibility for themselves, to learning the value of a dollar, and to know when to defer gratification for the sake of the bigger picture. Even as we unbridle our yearlings we may be called upon to pick up the reins for our aging parents. And all this while we wonder about our own careers, expectations that have remained unfulfilled, and retirement.
When it comes to the kids, you may be in one of two positions: they may not yet have left home, or they may be boomeranging back – alone, or with spouse and/or children in tow.
Probably the most important part of the boomerang-kids phenomenon is dealing with the emotional side of the change. If children are forced to move home because of a job loss, divorce or disability, you’ll have to help them deal with the impact on their self-esteem. Don’t think yourself immune to heated moments as you redefine your roles within the new family structure. Your children may at once love you for being there to help and hate you for their need for your help. Or you may experience both compassion for your children and resentment at being put back on duty as caregiver, financial supporter, grown-up.
Lots of families have to pull together to get through tough times. As the glue that binds the sandwich, you’ve got to stay healthy, maintain your own goals, and come first, at least some of the time, if you want to hold the family together.
One of the downsides of being the filling in the sandwich generation is the complete lack of control that comes with being tugged at from too many different sides. It’s frustrating. It’s emotionally draining. And it’s expensive. Prioritizing becomes an essential skill in maintaining some sense of balance in both our lives and our finances.
Of course, the ones in the middle aren’t the only ones who feel stress. Elder parents often experience high levels of stress. As they age and their children assume more responsibility for them, they lose a sense of having any power over their environment and decisions. It’s a Catch-22, for if control seems to be external, then they may lose their desire to make their own decisions.
One of the most damaging myths surrounding aging is that getting old automatically means a decline in mental facilities. At 40 I forget things, as I will at 50 and 60. Women blame it on the brain cells we lost during pregnancy and we laugh. Both sexes blame it on the fact that we must hold seventeen thoughts at once and we laugh. It’s easy, when we’re young, to dismiss it as just having too much on our minds. But when we’re old and forget things, we automatically blame age. Unfortunately, when we project a limiting myth onto our aging parent, it becomes self-perpetuating
If your parent is not yet fully dependent on you but you’re worried about the little things falling through the cracks, there are small steps you can take to ease your mind. Arrange for the automatic payment of important, recurring bills. This prevents hassles and interruptions in service if required payments aren’t made. Arrange to be notified if a non-automatic payment is missed. And arrange for the direct deposit of pension and benefit checks into bank and brokerage accounts. Consider setting up a joint account with telephone banking privileges so you can do a quick check to make sure everything in the account is going smoothly (no overdrafts!) several times a month.
Reuniting households sometimes works like a charm — or not — depending upon the temperament, flexibility, and tolerance of the parties involved. It is important for all members of the family to deal with conflicts and communication issues before they become problems. Mutual respect will bring you closer to a functioning multi-generation family that can forge a workable and healthy living environment.