Club sandwich anyone?

In general, we are having children later and often at a time when our careers are starting to take off. The average age of a mother in UK is almost 29 at first birth however in households with parents employed in higher managerial, administrative and professional occupations the average age of mother is well over 30. Women have 1.9 children on average, fewer than their mothers who really did have the archetypal 2.2 offspring. (The average age of mums and dads in England and Wales has increased by almost 4 years over the last 4 decades. At the birth of a child in 2015, fathers averaged 33.2 years of age and mothers 30.3 years.) So, if and when child #2 comes along we may well be mid to late thirties – for the record I was well into my forties. So, do the math, if your parents had you at 25 and you had a baby at 35 your parents will be 60. They may well be retiring or even use the grandchildren as an ‘excuse’ to cut down and may well become unpaid childcare so the parents can get back to work full time. It’s not an uncommon scenario and I make no judgement, grandparents are often very keen to be involved and this situation can suit everyone. However, let the years roll on, we are retiring later, let’s assume 65. Mum and dad are now in their late eighties or nineties. It may well be that your retirement plan includes looking after your parents but probably not, so where does one stand ethically and morally, let alone practically and financially? Who, what, where, why and how?  You may well have siblings and who takes ultimate responsibility can certainly cause issues. Hopefully the Grandparents are well and independent with a big pension pot and their own ideas about their living and care, but if not, what then? Pensioner children caring for two generations either side of them, from grandparent to grandchild? Is retirement going to be when the work really starts and what impact does caring for multiple generations of family have on those in their 60s and 70s?

The sandwich generation is the term given to those people who care for ageing parents while supporting their own children. When initially coined, it generally referred to people in their 30s and 40s. Now the sandwich generation has grown older and deeper. People in their 50s, 60s and 70s are caring for their elderly parents, needy adult children and lively grandchildren, a triple club sandwich!

The statistics suggest one in five of us aged 50-64 in the UK are carers to an older family member. One third of the country’s 6.5 million informal carers are aged 65 and over. The number of those aged 75 and over has increased by over a third since 2001. Then there’s the care of the grandchildren. There is a “hidden army” of grandparents helping out their adult children unable to afford mounting childcare costs. At least 80% of grandmothers in England with a grandchild under 16 provide some childcare – nearly 2 million of whom deplete their state pension by giving up work, reducing their hours or taking time off to help their adult children cope. Not only do these grandparents contribute £9bn a year towards the cost of clothes, toys, hobbies, pocket money, holidays and savings, but the expense of looking after children forces just under a fifth of grandparent-childminders to dip into savings and 5% to go into debt. At the same time, 28% of grandparents with a grandchild under 16 have a parent who is still alive and who might well have to turn to their retired child for care in future. Wow! In the East elders seem to garner so much more respect, we in the west must not take this for granted for what goes around comes around and we too will likely face these pressures especially those with few or no siblings or children (One in 5 of the over 50s have no children and by 65 there are 1 million in the UK without adult children, a figure expected to double in the next decade.) So, caring for elderly parents and relations as well as our adult children is something that many of us over 50s may well be faced with. We are all living longer now and have elderly parents who require care now or will do in the future. Whilst it shouldn’t be something that we worry unduly about before the event to the detriment of our own enjoyment of life, neither is it something that we can totally ignore. Like anything else, a bit of forward planning will make life much easier if and when the time comes to step in. Community care is regarded by many to be a myth with care for older people overwhelmingly self-care and family care, with a rather ‘discriminatory’ ratio of two to one with adult daughters and daughters-in-law to adult men. Although we in the west are thought not to respect our elders to the degree of our eastern cousins, the evidence shows a deep sense of obligation felt by family members and that they do go to extraordinary lengths to care for their parents. However, there is also widespread carer fatigue and breakdown – carers are twice as likely to suffer from mental health problems as well as discrimination in the jobs market. Elements of role reversal when caring for elderly parents is highly likely to bring its own tensions. Parents’ attitude to you, now that you are having to care for them, may well change. There may be resentment or guilt or feelings of inadequacy that they have never before shown to their offspring. Our elders are not children and we have a history with them that we don’t share with our children. We are not their parents, but the role reversal may require that we need to firmly guide in their own best interests whilst maintaining their dignity and preserving our relationship with them. You may also need to talk about wills, enduring power of attorney, care homes etc. and broaching this early will likely be easier than at a time of crisis. Parents may also become more dependant and ‘institutionalised’ over time even within the family. Going away on holiday or introducing new friends or helpers may cause upset and thus will need to be handled diplomatically albeit firmly.

It is often regarded as best to support the elderly in their own home. However, the balance needs to be made so that this isn’t ‘for as long as possible’ to the detriment of having choice and not having to manage in a crisis when the threshold is unexpectedly tipped over and less ideal arrangements have to be made at short notice. Transitioning to sheltered accommodation early may in some circumstances be in everyone’s best interest and overall lead to an extended period of independence and the avoidance of having to rely on a nursing home etc.

Clearly there is no one answer. Family circumstances, cultural norms, geography, finances and of course the ideas, concerns and expectations of all those involved will differ markedly. Forward planning and at least discussing the options early may well save all involved a great deal of angst and worry. A challenge within the family is that everyone has different commitments and different priorities. Someone who has more flexible work hours or less childcare commitments, isn’t necessarily able to devote more time to caring or drop everything to help out on a regular basis. Those who live further away may find it impossible to visit regularly and contribute their fair share of care but may be able to help in other ways for example taking the parent on holiday or paying for carers. But what if siblings have very different financial situations, should a high earner contribute more than a sibling who chose to have an ‘easier’ life and earn less or are supporting a larger family? Care giving siblings may also disagree over what is ‘best’ especially if they have radically different caring styles. (These might be ‘obvious’ in their differing parenting attitudes!) It just gets more complicated and as a family you may wish to consider a lasting power of attorney. This is complicated and well above my pay grade.

The legal stuff.


…and as for inheritance issues (Click for Taboo #12!) this may well be another minefield. Parents will often divide assets equally among their children and or grandchildren. Conflicts may well arise when the child-free sibling who has given up years of their adult life to care for the parents feels ‘disinherited’ or unfairly treated when given an ‘equal’ share or asked to move out of the late parents house when they die. Best that things are discussed as a family as early as possible and well before the crisis!


Q         What would my parents want, together or widowed?

Q         What arrangements have they made and are these adequate for their long-term care?

Q         Am I willing to step in and if so how deep?


You may find this book helpful.

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