My life in the sandwich generation
Sandwich generation

Stuck in the middle: My life in the sandwich generation


The dream goes like this: my mother, 83, downs a Big Gulp-sized cup of youth juice and joins a hiking group full of those annoying people who time their ascents up the Grouse Grind. Fit and frisky, she enjoys a healthy pension and winters in Arizona with her much younger man-friend.

The dreamscape shifts to my son, 13, who, overnight, becomes a genius and uber-athlete. Our family’s biggest decision in the next few years will be which dotted line to sign: Oxford University all-expenses paid, or the Chicago Blackhawks?

Then I wake up.

Sandwich generation

When I’m conscious, the picture looks a lot like the reality of scores of women my age across the province. My 83-year-old mother has a fixed income, and a future of blood pressure medication and long afternoon naps. Worse yet, my 13-year-old son is an eye-rolling monosyllabic hormone machine who expects nothing less than $150 running shoes.

I admit, most middle-class women in my peer group – Generation X, born in the mid 1960s to early 1980s – got a lot. We were independent and feminist-minded. We rocked out to Joan Jett and The Police. Our lives could have been much worse.

Soon enough, though, youthful fun gave way to student loans, mortgages, kids, a struggle to save for retirement, and the pain of watching parents suffer the indignities of age. Those of us who became parents ourselves earned sparkling new labels: “the unluckiest generation ever” and the “sandwich generation.”

That’s right. The sandwich generation. We are the fatty slice of mock-chicken loaf laying tight between the projected costs of ensuring the health and shelter of aging parents and the price tag that comes with the needs of growing children (hi there, tuition and housing fees).

According to Money Troubled: Inside B.C’s financial health gender gap, Vancity’s newly-released report on the gender finance gap, women of Generation X are more likely to worry about money – from paying for sudden emergencies to having enough to retire – than any other generation of adult women in BC .

Housing affordability is key to this distress. A whopping 86% of women of all ages surveyed in BC say it’s a problem for them, compared to 61% of women in the rest of Canada (according to data from the 2017 Canadian Financial Health Index study).

Sandwich generation

For those GenXers sandwiched between parent(s) and child(ren), the anxiety is real. “If I give this much to the Registered Education Savings Plan this month, will I have to give less to my RRSP? If I boost my mortgage payment next month, can I add anything to the account I set up for helping mom? If I go on vacation this summer, will the kid’s education fund suffer? And what if mom gets sick in the meantime?”

Welcome to my head.

Fortunately, there are concrete strategies out there. Thanks (and apologies) go out to Forbes magazine, The Motley Fool, and nearly every financial pundit on the internet whose advice I have read, and boiled down, for simplicity.

1. Pay yourself now, and pay yourself first

This is critical, though it’s not easy, and it takes great sacrifice. Paying off a mortgage by (or before) one’s retirement is a great achievement. For  sandwiched Gen Xers, it’s monumental. A mortgage-free home can act as a secure family HQ, giving you the power to offer an elderly parent a home base if they need it, and provide a crash pad for that young adult struggling as a post-grad in a tough economy. Couple it with well-funded Registered Retirement Savings Plan and you’re smelling like roses.

2. Get creative

Brainstorm solutions and defy convention.  Lisa B., a single mom living in North Vancouver, is one savvy GenX daughter. Her parents have been divorced for decades, yet she’s suggesting they move in together, as platonic room-mates, to help her support them in their later years.  Her heart is in the right place: savings aside, a strong social network is crucial for seniors’ well-being.

3. Talk with your parents

Sensible parents want you to pay off your mortgage, so you’re comfortable in your retirement before you help them. Speak to them now about a living will, and estate planning. The conversation may be awkward, but it will help you avoid the heartbreak of moving them into nursing care at a time when they have no say in the matter.

4. Then make a plan, balancing seniors and kids

That healthy teenager eating you out of house and home can get a part-time job to help pay for future tuition, fees and rent. What’s more, scholarships and bursaries aren’t just for the geniuses among us and can be huge in helping your kids afford post-secondary school. Make sure you are taking advantage of education grants, with RESP tips every parent should know. Saving for seniors’ care involves far fewer options, though it pays to search for home or institutional care, or independent/assisted living apartment buildings that charge rent according to residents’ income.

As for me?  My mother and I avoid difficult conversations – it’s in our DNA – so the big discussion about mortality will have to wait.  But “pay yourself first” option is, I think, do-able for me, and many in my generation. That (future) title-free home and RRSP contributions can go a long way to shut up those anxious demons in my noggin.

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