You may be among the 20 million people caught in what's called the "Sandwich Generation." That's the growing number of people taking care of their children and aging parents at the same time.
Megan Earlenbaugh homeschools her three children -- Austin, Isaac and Emileigh. But it's not the only learning taking place at home. Megan and her husband, Doug, are undergoing on-the-job training as new members of the Sandwich Generation. Megan's mom, Linda, recently moved in, making this family of five, a party of six.
"She has always wanted not to be cared for in a nursing home," Megan said. "Just her care on her own has become more and more complicated, and for her to be independent, we just felt like having her come here."
"It was probably one of the most difficult decisions I've had to make in a long time, not coming to live with them, but just leaving home," Linda said.
Home was Kansas, where Linda Rook had lived her entire life. And even though there's no place like home, Linda knew it was time. The 66-year-old's trip over the rainbow was a 1,200 mile trek to Virginia to live with her daughter and her family.
"I kind of left the decision up to God," Linda explained. "I figured He'd go, 'Hello, it's time to go.' And so one day, I just... I woke up in the morning, and it was just ok."
Although Linda is confined to a wheelchair, she had lived alone for more than a decade. But after a couple of health scares, she needed help.
"She needs help transferring, for showering and just daily care needs here," Megan said, referring to her mother. "Just managing her different diagnoses that she has. They're not complicated ones, but I think we need to work with nutritional and getting her new doctor set up here."
Don't forget -- that's in addition to raising three children, including one, who like his grandmother, is also in a wheelchair.
"With Isaac being disabled already, so many people have been concerned about, 'Well, how do you handle that?'" Doug said. "You've got somebody coming in that's disabled. That's already part of our family. I mean Isaac to be rolling around the house. To have Mom come in and do that, probably, we're the most likely family to have that kind of an addition."
7 to 10 Million Caring for Parents
Doug and Megan have a lot of company in the Sandwich Generation. Americans are living longer, and people are starting their families later. According to the Pew Research Center, one out of every eight Americans, ages 40 to 60, is raising a child and caring for a parent at home. On top of that, seven to 10 million Americans are caring for their aging parents from a long distance away.
Baby Boomers are at the heart of this group. And many times, their scenarios can be tricky.
"When I was hit with it -- emotionally traumatic," said Carol Abaya, an investigative journalist and nationally syndicated columnist.
Abaya says no assignment proved as difficult as caring for her aging parents. After a severe injury to her mom, Carol had no choice but to take the reins -- all this, while taking care of a teenager at home.
"I had to step in right away, taking over her finances, her care, running her business and so forth," Abaya explained. "And it was extremely stressful, and for months I walked around with a migraine."
It was the early 90s, and Carol needed help and support.
"There wasn't anything out there," she said. "So that's why in 1992, I started the magazine, The Sandwich Generation."
Over the years, Carol's research has also led to a nationally syndicated column. She says her goal is to let people know they're not alone. She's received letters from around the country.
"I can't seem to return to a normal schedule," Carol read from one of the letters. "My parents are basically healthy, but no longer drive, so I am their chauffeur every day. I need a rest."
The Menu Approach
Abaya takes a menu approach in breaking down the situation. First, there's the "traditional sandwich." That's when the adult children are caring for both aging parents and their own children.
Next comes the "club sandwich." As you might expect, there's more on a person's plate. The adult children are caring not only for their aging parents, but also their grandparents, as well as their own kids.
Finally, Abaya says there's the open-faced sandwich -- anyone who's involved in elder care.
Although having a multi-generational family under one roof can be a lot of fun, it can also be taxing both emotionally and financially. So if you're one of the 20 million Americans in the Sandwich Generation, how do you survive the squeeze?
Abaya says first, make sure all legal documents are in place before you need them. That includes durable power of attorney, which allows a person to designate someone else to make decisions, even if the person becomes disabled; as well as a document showing who will make medical decisions, and a regular will.
"My parents had wills, but they didn't have health care proxy or durable power of attorney," Abaya said.
Don't be Afraid to Ask for Help
Second, she says don't be surprised by experiencing a roller coaster of emotions. Third, don't be afraid to ask for help from family members or community resources like your local office on aging. Abaya also recommends purchasing long-term care insurance.
Then, there's the issue of privacy. Carol advises against having parents move in with their adult children.
"Unless, you have separate space for them," she said. "It is very difficult when you have three generations living in the same house, and no one has privacy."
Doug Earlenbaugh built a room onto his house for his mother-in-law so she can have her space and still have access to the same things in the house.
"So that was one thing that we thought was a real win for the whole family," Doug said.
Another win, Carol says, is to keep your sense of humor. Her niece, Ruth Kennel, is a geriatric nurse who believes there's still a joy in reaching out to loved ones.
"My 80-year-old patient who says to me, 'But my daughter's so busy, ok,'" Kennel shared. "And I said to her, 'You know, you were busy once. So now it's your turn. You took care of your daughter, now it's her turn to take care of you.'"
Add to all this advice a little childlike faith, and your sandwich is more likely to come together in harmony.
"Our grandmother's really cool," Isaac Earlenbaugh said. "She's outgoing and stuff. She's a lot of fun."
*Original Broadcast Date May 27, 2009