Demographic changes have led to the rise of a sandwich class of carers, writes Kate Jones.
Nicole Leedham knows the pressures of the "sandwich generation" only too well. Until recently she had the support of her parents to babysit her children. But all that changed when Leedham's father passed away suddenly, prompting a turning of the tables. Her father's death had a devastating effect on her mother, who was unable to babysit and instead began needing her daughter's care.
It also catapulted Leedham, 45, into the sandwich generation - a term for those stuck between dependent parents or parents-in-law and dependent children or grandchildren.
"It all happened very quickly and left my mum quite stunned," she says. "Suddenly we'd gone from having someone to care for the kids to not having that available any more."
Leedham quit her management job in communications to start a freelance writing business from home. It gave her more flexibility to care for her son and daughter - now aged nine and four - and her mum, 81.
Being an only child, Leedham had no siblings to lighten the load and after her mum suffered a mild stroke, she needed to be on call around the clock.
"There was a point when my mother was in hospital about 40 minutes away and, at the same time, my daughter was at home with a chest infection I was monitoring for pneumonia," she says. "Sandwich? Hell, yes.
"Caring for mum isn't as time consuming or relentless as children, but it's always there.
"I always used to ask my single-parent friends how they did it, but now I know you just do what you have to do."
Although the "sandwich generation" label has been around since the '80s, it applies to a broader group of Australians than ever before. The combined trends of an ageing population, delayed parenting and adult children living at home for longer means more mums and dads are finding themselves thrown in the middle.
And with the role of sandwich carer comes a hefty financial burden.
A 2012 study by the University of Adelaide for the Productive Ageing Centre found those in the sandwich generation were most likely to provide both practical and financial help to family members.
Of more than 600 people surveyed, 70 per cent of sandwich carers said they gave more cash to their children or grandchildren than their elderly parents. A third of those reported handing over payments of more than $10,000 to family members needing support. The respondents said a sense of familial affection motivated their desire to transfer cash to the younger generation, compared with a sense of duty behind payments to the older generation. Each year an estimated $50 billion is transferred between generations, according to the study.
Brendan Burwood, managing director of ipac Financial Care, says the financial strain on sandwich carers can be just as draining as the emotional and physical tolls.
"They could be blinded by the situation and not be putting enough away for their super or their own aged-care needs," he says. "It takes 50 years to reach 50, but just another 10 to reach 60 and 20 to reach 70. The ageing process goes quickly once you're over 50 and it's easy to take your eye off the ball." But with a firm budget, Burwood says it's possible to keep caring for loved ones while still saving.
"A lot of it comes back to solid financial planning," he says. "Those who can afford it will need to put away more and think about their retirement plans because we're living longer and the money has to go further."
While there is no official data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, experts conservatively estimate there are upwards of 1.5 million sandwich carers across the nation.
Demographic researcher Bruce Gregor, founder of Financial Demographics, says the role of sandwich carer emerged when more women began to enter the workforce. "The genesis of the term 'sandwich generation' comes from the mid- to late-'80s ... [when there was] a resurgence of women entering the workforce," he says.
As that trend strengthened, Gregor says, the sandwich generation continued to grow and is now compounded by Australians living longer. Gregor has studied the demographic of people whose parents are alive and who are also grandparents themselves. He found 505,000 people fell into this category in 1970. That figure jumped to 1.28 million in 2011, and is set to rise to 2.46 million by 2050.
"With each year, it's more likely that Australians have parents who are living, because of medical improvements. Between 1970 and 2013, life expectancy grew by seven years for men and 10 years for women," says Gregor, adding that in another 40 years, life expectancy is likely to be even longer - "in the order of five to 10 years".
The strain is perhaps greatest on those who care for elderly parents in their own homes with adult children still living there too. One in five Australians live in a household comprising two or more generations of related adults, a 2011 study by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute found. And the housing costs of multi-generation households have progressively increased.
With most of these families living in larger houses on the urban fringe, there is increased pressure on governments to rethink urban planning and aged-care provisions, study authors Edgar Liu and Hazel Easthope argue.
"Failure by policymakers to understand the intricacies of familial interdependencies and how these are played out in the confined spaces of private dwellings in our cities will undoubtedly create a new form of urban dilemma," they say in the report.
For many families coping with the stresses and strains of sandwich life, there is always the possibility of the cycle continuing.
If Generation Y repeats the pattern of delayed parenthood, they will find themselves in the same position as their sandwiched parents. But this is not what Leedham has in mind. "With me being an only child of older parents, I really didn't want that for my son," she says. "Which is why I was determined to have a second child, even though that meant I was even more ancient.
"At 45, I should be worried about teenagers and drugs, not chasing after a four-year-old! I know I can't guarantee my kids will support each other as they age, but I hope I can instil good values in them."
Watch John Collett and Clancy
Yeates discuss problems faced
by the Sandwich Generation at
Making rooms to let the parents move in
Caylie Jeffery spent $300,000 renovating her Queensland home with the specific intention of making room for her ageing parents and in-laws.
‘‘I was adamant I’d rather have them here than in a nursing home,’’ she says.
‘‘I don’t want them sitting somewhere without intellectual stimulation.
‘‘Having kids around them is good and I don’t want my kids thinking their grandparents get choofed off somewhere.’’ When Jeffery and her husband upgraded their home, they ensured the bathroom was wheelchair-friendly, the showers were large enough for chairs and the spare room was near the living areas so a close eye could be kept on the occupants.
Jeffery says her father was shocked to hear his daughter had gone to such lengths to prepare for his twilight years. Having been a sandwich carer himself, he didn’t want her to live in a similar situation.
But Jeffery, a nurse and freelance writer, says her careful planning will help to ease any burden the future may bring.
‘‘No one is ever prepared for this, but we’re being realistic and starting the conversation now,’’ she says.
Financial help for those in the sandwich generation
Double-check your elderly parents are receiving their full government entitlements. They may have been handling their affairs for years, but as they have aged it’s possible they may have missed some entitlements.
See humanservices .gov.au.
Arrange a free appointment with an Aged Care Assessment Team.
A team member can work out whether you are entitled to any government aged-care services and this may allow you to return to work or take a much-needed break. See myagedcare.gov.au.
Find out if you qualify for a carer payment or carer allowance.
Sandwich carers can be too busy looking after others to look after themselves. Take the time to see if you are entitled to any benefits. See humanservices .gov.au.
Lighten the load by talking to your siblings and children. Let them know how much care you’re providing to see if they can help.
Adult children can help by paying board or with such things as driving their grandparents to appointments.
Get financial advice. Those in the sandwich generation are often in a difficult and emotional situation and it’s the worst time to be making financial decisions.
It may be worth getting an expert to look at the figures.
Brendan Burwood, ipac