We hear a lot about Baby Boomers reinventing themselves -- searching for new meaning, new mates and new adventures -- yet there is increasing evidence to suggest that many are staying right at home caring for their children, grandkids and even their own parents. These days, mid-lifers need refueling, not reinvention, in order to have stamina to take on these unexpected and exhausting roles.
Such exhaustion was palpable when our long-term housekeeper, Mary, came to work on a recent Monday morning. "I'm so relieved to be here" she said, "I love my grand kids -- and my mom -- but I'm wiped out after taking care of them all weekend." Mary, having been our babysitter for over 20 years, is like family to us, so even though our nest is now empty she continues doing light housekeeping in our home. Now, at age 54, she views ours as her second home, and maybe more importantly, as a respite from her own more demanding one. She is among a growing number of mid-lifers cohabiting with extended family, and it's an ambivalent experience.
The "Sandwich Generation" is hitting midlife feeling pressured by the needs of both adult children and increasingly frail parents. Coined over 25 years ago by social worker, Dorothy Miller, the phrase was originally used to describe women in their 30s and 40s 'sandwiched' between their young kids, mates, employers and aging parents. Now, while still referring to this demanding juggling act, the demographics have changed -- the children are grown up, the parents are living longer and the experience is felt by men, as well women, who are in their 50s and beyond.
Smart Money reported "there are more adult Americans age 34 or younger sleeping in their childhood bedrooms now than at any other time in the past 30 years." The report goes on to say that the number of "Boomerang Kids," has increased from 17% in 1980, to 25% in 2009, with almost half of those under the age of 25 currently returning to live with their parents. Not only are more college graduates moving back home, but more middle aged parents are helping support them until they are employed.
And studies show mid-lifers are not only helping out with their offspring, but with their children's children as well. Research out of University of Chicago, based on a National Institute on Aging survey found that of 13,614 grandparents (50 years old and over), over half provided some care for their grandchildren. Among that group, 70% offered assistance for two or more years, the kind of help that went beyond occasional baby-sitting. These results mirrored the 2010 Census Report that showed that grandparents are the primary source of childcare for 30% of American mothers who work and have kids under the age of five, a rise over the past 4 years, from 2.4 to 2.7 million. Eight percent of these grandparents are living in the same household.
And that is only one side of the sandwich for mid-lifers. While their kids and grand-kids are moving in (or never leaving), elderly parents are not moving far away either. According to The New York Times, a National Health and Retirement sample showed that among 8,000 people over age 69 residing within 10 miles of their nearest child, 73 % had no plans to relocate. Fewer aging parents are retiring to Miami, Palm Springs or other warmer places -- as "Snowbirders" were known to do -- either because they can't afford to or they prefer to remain near those who will likely be their caregivers.
And mid-lifers don't appear to be trying to get away from it all. Among all age groups, mobility rates in the United States have declined in a nearly unbroken pattern, for 60 years, reaching an all-time low of 11.6% in 2010. "Ours is a decreasingly mobile society, geographically and otherwise," says demographers Douglas Wolf and Charles Longino Jr. Boomers may be eager for second chances at life -- in new places with new people -- but it turns out they are not often getting them. Young adults and aging seniors are finding themselves unexpectedly sharing homes with their middle-aged family members who are staying put, shouldering the burden of caring for them all.
This need for help at both ends of the spectrum will become even greater if the recession is prolonged, unemployment remains high and as life expectancy continues to extend. Trends in our country's population distribution show that at the beginning of the 20th century, only 7% of 60-year-olds had one parent still living. That figure is nearly 50% today and rising. Looking forward, it's not hard to imagine a time when most mid-lifers will have two parents parents living well into their 90s or longer. Psychologically and practically, our culture is currently structured so that mid-lifers are the 'go-to' group for support -- and it doesn't look like that trend will change anytime soon.
Multi-generational family dynamics are complex and the complicated feelings they generate are dependent on many factors. On one extreme, take the White House, where the country's First Grandmother resides with her son and his family. In her case, presumably she has plenty of space and built-in help so that care-taking responsibilities don't fall on her -- nor is she likely a burden to others. From the outside, looking in, the First Family has created a multi-generational dynamic that appears to work well.
But other homes across our country more likely feature women like Mary, our babysitter. With fewer choices at her disposal, sandwiched between generations, she feels demands from all sides and taken granted in ways she didn't expect at her age.
Like millions of others, Mary will not abandon a family that needs her, even though this new arrangement is taxing -- physically, emotionally and financially. The good news is we are all living longer and have years ahead of us to figure this out. Perhaps with time and experience, the boundaries between generations will become clearer -- placed kindly, but more firmly -- which will help women like Mary feel less drained, and less guilty.
The bad? Those hitting mid-life now will have to find ways to help their kids, their parents.....and still take care of themselves. Meanwhile, my husband and I will continue to provide a second home for Mary -- a place where she can refuel and keep making a living -- so she can care for all who depend on her.
Do you have a story to tell about multi-generational living and the new family landscape?
Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.
For more information, please visit my website at www.VivianDiller.com; and continue the conversation on Twitter at DrVDiller.