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The Sandwich Generation

Baby Boomers Feel the Squeeze

February 6, 2013
By LINDA COMINS - Life Editor , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

Baby boomers are being squished as the "filling" in a "sandwich" between elderly parents and adult children who need more help in times of financial downturn.

Dubbed the sandwich generation, many baby boomers are struggling with their own needs and desires, while straining to cope with aging parents' health and living concerns and, at the same time, trying to aid grown children who struggle in a precarious economy.

The squeeze on the sandwich generation has resulted in rising financial burdens for middle-aged Americans, the Pew Research Center said in a report released Jan. 30.

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Writing an overview of the Pew report, Kim Parker and Eileen Patten stated, "Nearly half (47 percent) of adults in their 40s and 50s have a parent age 65 or older and are either raising a young child or financially supporting a grown child (age 18 or older). And about one-in-seven middle-aged adults (15 percent) is providing financial support to both an aging parent and a child.

"While the share of middle-aged adults living in the so-called sandwich generation has increased only marginally in recent years, the financial burdens associated with caring for multiple generations of family members are mounting. The increased pressure is coming primarily from grown children rather than aging parents."

Kevin A. Stryker, a wealth adviser for McKinley Carter Wealth Services in Wheeling, emphasizes qualitative, rather than quantitative, steps to ease the stress of feeling sandwiched between elderly parents and dependent children. Clearly, he said, the "sandwich" situation "results in a lot of stresses."

Stryker commented, "It's important for individuals in those predicaments to look back and to look across."

In looking back, people will realize that "traditionally in this country, generations supported their prior generations," he said. By looking across to Europe and Asia, they will see that "typically the nuclear families supported the older relatives," he added.

"It is important to keep that in perspective," Stryker observed.

He suggested that people look to friends, associates, professionals, organizations and agencies for advice and consolation in dealing with stresses. "I think those stresses are more important than the finances," he remarked.

Difficult decisions, such as whether to move a parent to an independent living community or skilled care facility, also carry emotional costs, he said.

"It's important for individuals who find themselves with these stresses to connect with what they enjoy," he said. Stryker encourages boomers and their parents to pursue favorite interests, such as reading, listening to live music and taking trips, and to engage in "looking back on favorable experiences in ther lives."

Engaging in those activities can help people put a situation in perspective. "The qualitative is more important than the quantitative," he said. "Maintain the dignity and the character and the principles."

By looking back, Stryker believes Americans should realize that "we are truly blessed to be living in this country at this time. Everyone's family members made a lot of sacrifices for us to be able to appreciate what we have today."

In cases where family members are reluctant or resentful of assisting aging parents, Stryker said it could be that "these people were products of a a generation who gave up everything for their children. Their children may have grown up expecting to be given, instead of giving."

For other families, geographic chasms - rather than any reluctance to help - hinder boomers' ability to assist their elderly parents with daily chores or more serious concerns. Career moves or early retirement take some boomers far from their hometowns where aging relatives remain.

"That's very challenging," Stryker said. "I've seen lots of examples where offspring are so geographically distant that it really makes it difficult."

Regarding expenses for assisted living or nursing homes, Stryker said, "Over the years, I have been so struck by the number of families who seem so obsessed that the savings of the elderly parent do not go toward that parent's care. In my mind, what better use of the funds?"

He added, "In some populations, the entitlement mindset is it's the government that's going to foot that care, rather than the person's savings."

For those concerning about the cost of care, he recommends that boomers and their parents fully explore veterans' benefits and speak to advisers regarding options for institutional care or in-home care. In any case, he said, "Allow the elderly relative to make the decisions about the use of his or her assets."

Meanwhile, an increasing number of baby boomers are dealing with financial crises involving their own offspring, jobless or underemployed, who have returned home or struggle to make ends meet out on their own. Many young adults are troubled by a scarcity of good-paying jobs, coupled with staggering student loan payments and spiraling credit card debt.

Regarding this trend, the nationwide Pew Research Center survey found that "roughly half (48 percent) of adults ages 40 to 59 have provided some financial support to at least one grown child in the past year, with 27 percent providing the primary support. These shares are up significantly from 2005. By contrast, about one-in-five middle-aged adults (21 percent) have provided financial support to a parent age 65 or older in the past year, basically unchanged from 2005," Parker and Patten stated.

The survey was conducted Nov. 28-Dec. 5 among 2,511 adults nationwide, the Pew officials said.

In the Pew report, Parker and Patten stated, "Looking just at adults in their 40s and 50s who have at least one child age 18 or older, fully 73 percent have provided at least some financial help in the past year to at least one such child. Many are supporting children who are still in school, but a significant share say they are doing so for other reasons. By contrast, among adults that age who have a parent age 65 or older, just 32 percent provided financial help to a parent in the past year."

Of the grown children who return to live with their parents after college, many "come back with incredible student debt, crushing debt," Stryker observed. "That is largely a product of the exorbitant cost of higher education," he added.

The attorney and financial adviser argued that "the exorbitant cost" speaks not to the quality of the education, but to the cost of maintaining and expanding "the physical plant of the institution." He commented, "Institutions build, build, on borrowed debt, then current students have to pay the price, whether they get benefit or not. Facilities come at very high cost."

Stryker suggests that students and parents calculate the total cost of higher education before committing to a particular school, and consider attending colleges or universities that offer quality instruction at lower costs than other institutions.

"Previously, it wasn't as important where you went as long as you were a motivated student. Today, with the Internet, it is less important where you go," Stryker said. He also predicted that costs will come down with implementation of global, Internet-based educational initiatives.

To plan for students' financial needs, Stryker recommends that families establish educational savings accounts. "When the educational expenses begin to accrue, do not be quick to exhaust retirement assets. The economic cost is too great," he warned.

He suggests that students "be circumspect about borrowing for current educational expenses." If borrowing is necessary, loans should be secured from reputable firms that don't employ trickery or usury.

Stryker also advises students: "Be realistic - don't think you have to go some place you think you have emotional aspirations to. Get a good liberal arts background. Learn to be a critical thinker."

Citing the "crushing" debt load that many students face, he said, "It makes no sense. You're getting kids right out of school way behind the eight-ball. It is serving the wrong interests."

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