From the AARP to politicians to the health care industry to the popular media, there is a lot of concern over the challenges that the U.S. faces taking care of an aging population and the toll it might take on individual Americans to care for their aging parents. These concerns are amplified by the fact that, unlike many other developed countries, the U.S. does not have a strong safety net to help with elder care. An added complication is the new reality that many Americans taking care of aging parents are also raising their own children at the same time—a phenomenon often referred to as being in the sandwich generation.
As with many issues in a family studies course, this one has recently shifted from the professional realm to the personal realm for me when my own parents started having significant health problems right as my kids entered some very trying years of adolescence. So, count me as a member of the sandwich generation. That personal perspective helped to fine-tune my professional expertise on family processes and how what goes on within our intimate family lives offers us a way to think about the larger society and our place in it. That is one of the core perspectives of Families Now, reminding us to think about our families as something that develops in fits and starts over long periods of time within contexts—large and small—that shape us from the outside in. For example, multiple chapters (e.g., 6, 13, 15) in Families Now offer concrete ways to place our own experiences in such a context:
- More people are caught in the “sandwich” in families because of a demographic crunch in society, one created by longer life expectancy (more aging parents to care for indefinitely), a declining birth rate (fewer kids to share responsibilities for any one aging parent), and delayed age at birth (more years in which there are kids at home while parents need care).
- The historical economic and political marginalization of families of color in our society meant that, over time, they built stronger family and community networks of extended kin and non-kin to help people deal with the challenges of caring for aging parents (and raising children), so that social resources developed to deal with a dearth of other kinds of resources.
- The challenges of caring for aging parents has ripple effects across families and communities, as relationships between adult siblings can fracture in conflict and the strain on adult children can trickle down into their interactions with their own children.
To build on this discussion, have your students estimate their chances of spending significant time in the sandwich generation based on their parents’ ages and different ages at which they want to become parents (if they do). You can even have them factor in their siblings’ situations to figure out how much of that time will be shared. Upon comparing different potential future experiences of the sandwich generation, you can lead a discussion of the ways that the government or community-based groups could help people—including, possibly, their future selves—with the challenges of caring for aging parents.