‘Sandwich generation’ challenges big, and getting bigger

One in 10 Canadians aged 45 to 64 juggle tasks of taking care of children and elderly parents

This much working Canadians know too well. It’s hard enough to find time after work to take care of the daily family obligations — getting the groceries, making dinner, helping the kids with homework, getting ready for the next day.

But things can get a lot harder. Add to the list looking after an elderly parent, tending to them when they’re sick or they no longer sleep through the night, running chores for them if they still live in their own homes. Just getting from one day to the next can seem unmanageable. Yet, though stressed out, the ones shouldering these duties are not necessarily dissatisfied.

They’re a relatively small group now, but these harried multi-taskers are growing in numbers, according to Statistics Canada. In a report on what’s called “the sandwich generation,” the stats agency found one in 10 Canadians between the ages of 45 and 64 currently juggles dual responsibilities of caring for young children as well as an elderly parent. Of this group, 83 per cent also have to hold down a job.

That number will grow because the ranks of elderly people are increasing, and because women have been putting off childbirth, meaning they’ll be caring for children at an older age than previous generations, said report author Cara Williams. Lower fertility rates in recent decades also mean that fewer adults will be around to care for the elderly. As a consequence, a married couple may well find they have more parents than children to care for.

But not all elder care is burdensome. Williams notes the distinction between what she calls “high intensity” and “low intensity” sandwich groups. The latter are people in the sandwich generation who spend eight hours or less a month on elder care.

The former group, the high-intensity caregivers in the survey, are more likely to feel stressed than the low-intensity group (76.3 per cent versus 66.7 per cent). What’s surprising is they’re also more likely to be satisfied with life (67.9 per cent versus 56.5 per cent). In both groups, as many as one-half said they see helping someone as a way of giving back what they received.

In other words, people who devote a considerable amount of time caring for others may feel stressed and time-strapped. But they also often find life more meaningful, said Williams.

Nora Spinks, president of Work-Life Harmony Enterprises, said the finding that sandwich generation workers find enormous satisfaction in their ability to care for others means organizations have to rethink the kind of support they’ve tended to assume caregivers would need.

“What that means is they might not need EAP services and stress management and counselling, which is how most organizations support this group. Instead what they need is support in terms of flexibility from their colleagues and their managers, in terms of information and resources, both in the workplace and in the community.”

She added that while interest on this issue has been growing, employers still don’t know how to handle the unpredictability of accommodating a caregiver’s needs.

“Most employers in the past 20 or 25 years have treated elder care as though it’s the same as child care,” she said. They think a worker with an elderly parent might need flex hours in the same way that a working parent needs flex hour. But whereas a parent might need an hour in the morning and an hour at the end of the day to drop off and pick up her kids at the daycare, someone caring for an ailing senior might have entirely different needs.

“The difference is between someone who might say, ‘I’ve got to go pick up my sick child from school. I’ll be back at work tomorrow,’ and someone who might say, ‘My mother is sick. I don’t know when I’ll be back.’”

At the Family Caregivers Network Society in Victoria, executive director Barb MacLean said one of the most important points in the study for her was the observation that women bear the bulk of the caregiving duties.

Whereas men in the sandwich generation are more likely than their female counterparts to help with outside chores and transportation, these two types of help take up less time than in-home care, which is twice as likely to fall on women, according to the study.

Women already earn less than men, and they already experience greater job insecurity from taking maternity leaves or interrupting their career for child care, MacLean said. The fact that they also shoulder much of the elder care means that they’re even more likely to experience financial hardship, especially when they retire themselves, she noted.

MacLean found optimism in the release of the figures, however, because it may promote awareness and understanding of the issues.

“When people talk around the water cooler, they talk about their babies and their children but they tend to not talk about having to care for an elderly parent,” said MacLean.

“If you have a really sick kid, everybody at work knows about it.” People with an elderly parent, however, rarely share the fact that the parent is sick, “because they don’t know if it’ll just get worse.”

It’s important that people share this kind of information at the office, said MacLean, because colleagues and bosses would more likely understand when the caregiver is under stress or needs to take a day off. It’s also therapeutic, which is important because caregivers are sometimes fraught with guilt, frustration or despair.

To help foster awareness and support, MacLean has worked with employers to set up support groups and lunch-and-learn sessions on elder-care issues, from dealing with legal issues like power of attorney to caring for one’s well-being as a caregiver.

At Camosun College, a caregiver support group that MacLean’s agency set up quickly evolved into an internal listserv of caregivers — a peer-support group, so to speak, but online.

Although she has no children and is not part of the sandwich generation herself, executive assistant Fern Spackman already knows well the time and energy it takes to care for elderly parents. She relies quite a bit on the mutual support available on the college’s caregivers’ listserv.

But what gives her greater relief is her boss’s understanding whenever she has to leave work to tend to her mom and dad, who are 75 and 85 years old.

When her mom went into the hospital in February and then in April, it took the doctors a while to determine what was wrong. That meant a lot of tests and appointments. And when the doctors pinpointed the problem, Spackman had to put a lot of work into modifying her parents’ home to make it accessible.

“It was a tough time. And I felt real bad because my boss’ job is really busy, and you don’t feel good saying ‘I need to take time off.’ But his responses were so supportive. He would say things like, ‘They’re the only parents you have. You need to do what you need to do to take care of them.’”

Had her boss not been as sympathetic, she would have had no choice but to use up her vacation time to tend to these errands. And over the course of a year, “I would have been at the burnout stage.”

Spackman’s boss, human resource executive director Greg Conner, said accommodating workers with family responsibilities makes sense. When a worker has a sick parent to care for, her mind wouldn’t be on the job anyway.

The college has a few policies in place to support such workers, said Conner. One is a leave policy that tries to be lenient enough to allow an employee to take every Friday off, for example, and use vacation time and other types of leave to fill in for his absence. “That might take him through a year or a two before he has to be brought down to an 80-per-cent full-time equivalent schedule.”

The second policy is a job share policy, which can be costly initially due to administrative expenses, but the return in the long run is peace of mind for those involved.

Conner also acknowledges the unions’ flexible stance on the issue. In a less trusting environment, unions might just look dimly on the job share policy as an erosion of full-time jobs, he said.

Despite the policies, Conner still runs into managers reluctant to accommodate employees in times of need.

“One way around that is to ask them, ‘What would you like to have done if you were the employee?’ Often that does the trick. It’s about having compassion for employees.”

The costs of caring

Statistics Canada surveyed Canadians between the ages of 45 and 64 who have both children and parents to care for, and who spend more than eight hours a month on elder care. Below are survey findings.

On personal well-being:

•76.3 per cent said they’re stressed;

•22.6 per cent said giving care affects their health; and

•56 per cent said caregiving has added to their expenses.

On work:

•35.4 per cent of high-intensity caregivers have changed their work hours;

•25.6 per cent have cut back on hours; and

•16.8 per cent have reduced income.

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