Family

Source: Social Security Administration.

Perhaps you haven't heard of the Sandwich Generation -- a slew of 40- to 60-year-old Americans who find themselves financially caring for both their elderly parents and their young adult children.

Reading the headlines, you'd think caring for so many people could suck the joy out of life. Here's a sampling:

  • "Sandwich generation is trapped caring for children and parents" --The Times (U.K.)
  • "The Sandwich Generation: Caught in the Middle" -- Kiplinger
  • "Retirement reset: Sandwiched Boomers put plans on hold" -- USA Today

Maybe it's just me, but when I read headline after headline about people being "trapped," I get a little anxious about our future.

But before we panic, let's get a sense of what the Sandwich Generation actually looks like. Here's a breakdown:

In total, roughly 15% of Americans between the age of 40 and 60 would qualify as being in the Sandwich Generation.

There is unquestionably a distinct set of financial circumstances in which you are caring for more people than you might have planned for. When Pew Research asked members of the Sandwich Generation how they would describe their household's financial situation, it appears caring for elderly parents can especially strain finances.

 Supporting Parent 65-PlusNot Supporting Parent 65-plus
Live comfortably 28% 41%
Meet basic expenses with a little left over 30% 31%
Just meet basic expenses 30% 17%
Don't have enough to meet basic expenses 11% 10%

Source: Pew Research.

Additionally, the Family Caregiver Alliance has found that adults who overcommit to helping out loved ones can lose their sense of self, and they consequently have higher rates of clinical depression.

The problem isn't the message; it's the tone
Many of the articles referenced above actually give great advice for adapting to these changing circumstances: Discuss finances with those you are caring for, set boundaries, keep the lines of communication open, and don't forget to tend to your own social and emotional needs.

Those are all important.

It's not the content of these articles I have a problem with. Rather, it's the gloom-and-doom tone they set. Dig a little deeper and see what the Sandwich Generation has to say about the reality (not just the theory) of living in these circumstances, and we discover that by myopically focusing on just finances, we are missing some of the benefits associated with these circumstances.

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Maybe we need to shift our expectations: Living with and near extended family can be good for the soul.  

The implication is that if finances are strained, then people must be less happy. And in the end, life satisfaction should matter the most, right? But here's what the Sandwich Generation -- and adults of the same age range who don't care for children and adults -- had to say, according to the same PewResearch poll.

Yes, you read that right: The Sandwich Generation is actually happier than those of the same age who aren't caring for kids and parents. This is one of the most important findings, but it's not what dominates the headlines.

How could this be?
I won't pretend to see into the souls of every person who responded to the Pew Research Center poll and divine an answer as to why members of the Sandwich Generation are happier than their peers. But I will share two explanations that came to mind.

First, that same poll found that if parents were providing some financial assistance to a child, there was an 88% chance the child relied on them for some form of emotional support as well. If the parents weren't providing financial assistance, that number dipped to 63%. The same trend was found among adults caring for elderly parents. If adults were providing some type of day-to-day help, there was an 84% chance that they were providing some type of emotional support. But if the adult children weren't providing day-to-day assistance, that number dipped to 61%.

Providing that type of assistance can give one's life meaning and purpose -- a key ingredient for happiness.

Second, I think multigenerational living is far more common -- and much better for our well-being -- than we Americans tend to realize. Travel outside any industrialized Western country, and you are likely to see many generations living happily under one roof. Loneliness, and the anxiety that comes with it, is nowhere near as prevalent.

The American Society on Aging reported that within the U.S., while finances were often the catalyst to form multigenerational homes, the benefits went far beyond that: "Families living in multigenerational homes have built-in opportunities to build stronger, mutually beneficial intergenerational relationships."

You may not agree with these ideas, and I cannot prove or disprove them within the scope of this article. But the bottom line is that careful financial and emotional planning will make adaptation easier, and the overall effect on your happiness could actually be a net positive.

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