It's been said that life begins at 50--that magic crossroad in life when men and women supposedly can begin to turn their attention away from the responsibilities of career and parenthood, toward having fun, exploring new interests, and seeking significance as opposed to mere material success. For some lucky individuals this is no doubt true. But for a growing segment of the over-50 population this notion is quickly becoming a fiction. That's not to say that their situation is hopeless, or that they are destined to never experience these things. On the other hand, it does the members of the boomer generation no favor to pretend that our lives have suddenly become a walk in the park. Consider the following.
Today's boomers find themselves living at a time when modern medicine has literally transformed the nature of death and dying. Life spans continue to be extended. At the same tine sudden death, particularly the kind that was once associated with getting a terminal diagnosis, is being replaced by a prolonged process that only begins with a diagnosis, and which more and more extends for years. That is one reality. The second is economic: what we not too long ago thought of as a bad (but temporary) slump in our economy may in fact mark the beginning of a long period of increased financial stress for the average family--and therefore for the average boomer. Taken together these two powerful trends have produced what has been called the sandwich generation, meaning "sandwiched" between their own children and their own parents. And taken together they mean that the numbers of people who qualify as "sandwiched" will only increase. This new reality is reflected in the following information about women in the boomer generation that comes to us from the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, which not long ago published its National Longitudinal Study of Women:
• Nearly half of women between the ages of 45 and 55 have at least one living parent and one child under the age of 21.
• One in three of women in this age group say that they are providing ongoing care or support to both a parent and a child, defined as spending at least several hundred dollars and devoting at least 100 hours a year to these efforts.
• One in ten of these women are simultaneously supporting both a parent and a child, defined as spending an average of $10,000 and 1,350 hours a year to this.
Considering the last group above alone, these efforts translate into $18 billion and 2.4 billion hours a year in support of one kind or the other. With respect to time it can include anything from parenting an adolescent (since women have been starting families later), to being a surrogate day care provider for one or more grandchildren, to being a caretaker for one or more aging parents. These women take on these responsibilities willingly, out of love, a sense of obligation, or both.
Solutions for Sandwiched Boomers
Today's realities mean that more and more boomers are either sandwiched right now or can expect to find themselves sandwiched at some point down the road. For this large and growing group life does not begin at 50; rather life changes at 50. This does not have to be a bad thing, as long as we can accept the idea that we may not be as free as we'd expected to be--to pursue whatever whim crosses our mind. Here are a few ideas for starters:
• Balance self-care with caretaking and support of others. Research has shown that caregivers (including sandwiched boomers) can also burn out doing so, in large part because they tend to neglect themselves in the process. Some techniques that have been found to reduce chronic stress if followed consistently include exercise, yoga, meditation, and massage. Choose one that you like ad them stick with it, because that's the best way to get the most stress relief over the long run.
• Don't get isolated. Find your voice and someone to talk to on a regular basis about the issues you are facing, the frustrations you may experience, and most importantly, solutions you have found. Creating an informal support group other sandwiched boomers you know can be a life saver.
• Build a support network. If at all possible, share the financial and time responsibilities with others. If you are doing day care for a grandchild, ask the other grandparents to become part of the network. Caring for an infant or toddler two days a week is much less stressful than doing so five days a week.
We boomers have at times been accused of being a selfish, "all about me" generation. The above statistics contradict that stereotype. More about this in future blogs.