Sandwich generation

Marketplace Staff Nov 23, 2006


BOB MOON: ‘Tis the season for family get-togethers, but for a growing number of American’s the family get-together never stops. They’re part of a new generation that’s becoming known as the sandwich generation, people taking care of their kids and their elderly parents at the same time. In fact, one out of every three American workers care for an elderly family member. And some of them are leaving their jobs to do it full-time. In the short-term it saves thousands of dollars in nursing home bills, but in the long-term the loss in wages can be enough to make you sick. From the Marketplace work and family desk, Apryl Lundsten has the story.

PAM SCHULTZ: OK mamma it’s time for lunch. Here is your soup. OK.


SCHULTZ: And I got you a glass of milk. OK?

MOTHER: OK. Thank you very much.

APRYL LUNDSTEN: A year and a half ago, Pam Schultz’s mother suffered two strokes. The Best Western Hotel in northern Michigan where Schultz worked as a manager offered her flexible hours so she could care for her mother, but her mother lived in California. So Schultz sold everything and left behind two grown sons and three grandchildren to move in with her mother.

PAM SCHULTZ: It was really difficult to make that decision to come here, but I decided and my sons agreed that granny needs you.

Schultz now spends 24/7 taking care of her mother who can’t be left alone, even for a few minutes.

SCHULTZ: I made a trip to the post office a couple days ago and when I came home she was on the floor.

Pam Schultz fits the demographic of a typical family caregiver to a T. She’s in her 50s, a woman and taking care of her 81-year-old mother. Hard numbers don’t exist on how many people quit their jobs to care for parents, but studies show that family caregivers spend from 11 to 20 hours a week. Middle and lower income folks like Schultz are financially most affected. Many could use company support of some kind.

ELLEN GALINSKY: The study that was done several years ago found that a sizable proportion of these families went into bankruptcy over caring for their families. It’s a wonderful thing to care for an elderly parent or relative, but it’s tragic that it puts a family into bankruptcy in some cases if they’re lower wage.

That’s Ellen Galinsky, she’s president of the Families and Work Institute, A nonprofit center for research on the changing family and workforce. Galinsky and other experts say when you look at the numbers it’s easy to see why lots of families can’t afford elder care. Lynn Friss Feinberg is deputy director of another nonprofit called the National Center on Caregiving. She says private aids can cost up to $20 an hour and private nursing homes are out of sight.

LYNN FRISS FEINBERG: The average cost of a semi-private room in a nursing home in 2005 was $64,000 a year and for a private room it was $74,000 a year. Now who can afford that?

Pam Schultz can’t. Quitting her job made more sense than spending that kind of money.

SCHULTZ: It seems like we kind of go in the red a lot of times or go without.

But even those who are OK financially are making big sacrifices. Gail Hopkins was forced to decide between staying in Los Angeles with her husband and continuing work as a speech pathologist or moving to Colorado to take care of her father. She’s choosing her father.

GAIL HOPKINS: My mother died two years ago. My father was living alone in the condo and my father has macular degeneration so he can’t see that well and he’s also having some physical ailments. My plan is not to come back to California at this point.

How does Hopkins’ husband Steve Lamy feel about her decision?

STEVE LAMY: It isn’t a situation that I would choose to live in, but I think it’s one of the realities we have to face as our parents get older and I wouldn’t ask her to not do it. I would a€” I think it’s my responsibility to say, OK let’s make this happen.

Lamy is a professor of international studies at the University of Southern California. He’ll take a one-year sabbatical to be with Gail while he considers his options. But for people who don’t have that kind of flexibility it helps if they work for a big company with elder care policies. IBM, for example, offers a three-year leave of absence and a flexible work schedule.

MARIA FERRIS: For us it’s clearly a talent issue and if employees are worried or distracted about their elders then they’re not going to be focused on our business and our customers.

That’s Maria Ferris, an IBM HR Manager. She says today one out of every four employees tell the company they have a problem with elder care. Another third expect to in the next five years. IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Exxon and other big companies are collaborating on elder care policies and assistance. But workplace expert Ellen Galinsky says most middle-size and small companies can’t afford to offer programs like these.

GALINSKY: We need to rethink careers or jobs in the United States that provide periods of care with periods of working.

Still, both Schultz and Hopkins say the sacrifices are worth it. Schultz says taking care of her mother is the most rewarding job she’s ever had.

In Los Angeles, I’m Apryl Lundsten for Marketplace.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.