Carers caught in the 'sandwich generation'

Carers caught in the 'sandwich generation'

Posted September 28, 2012

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Baby boomers are now aged in their 50’s or 60’s. The sandwich generation (a term coined in the 80’s) is a recognisable and growing sub-group of the baby boomers.  Baby boomers tended to marry and have children later and as a result ‘have become the first generation to be ‘sandwiched’ between the care of adult children, even grandchildren, and their parents’.[i]

The sandwich generation often supports their children who are studying, working and trying to purchase increasingly expensive accommodation; they are also often supporting their ageing, sick or disabled parents who require an increasing amount of care.   On top of this situation, people in the sandwich generation are also likely to be in paid employment. At a time in their lives when baby boomers might expect to be enjoying financial security and leisure time, they are now highly likely to have increased demands on their financial and other resources.

Is the term ‘sandwich carer’ relevant to the 2.6 million unpaid carers in Australia? It is difficult to get a clear understanding of the extent of the caring roles of the sandwich generation. Anecdotes and qualitative evidence suggest that the sandwich generation is juggling many responsibilities, including having to make employment choices and redirect financial resources as a result of caring responsibilities.

These choices potentially influence their own financial position as they age.  Increased life expectancy will see more of the sandwich generation becoming carers, due to the increasing length of time that many ageing people, particularly women; spend in poor health prior to death.[ii] Women of the sandwich generation are also more likely to have a caring role and this is consistent with figures that show the single largest group of (primary) carers are women aged between 45 and 54 years.[iii]  Baby boomer women are more likely to live without partners due to divorce or widowhood and will be less financially secure as a result.[iv] Between 2006 and 2031, the number of women living alone is predicted to rise from 1 million to between 1.7 and 1.8 million.[v] This includes younger women, but the increasing life expectancy of women means an increasing number of older women will probably have caring responsibilities and probably require care and other support themselves.

There are also many carers that are sandwiched between caring for a child with a disability and an ageing parent. While we understand that ageing parents require an increasing amount of support over time, what are the care and support needs of the broadly defined ‘adult children’? A proportion will have high needs, others may simply require transport and free accommodation. The needs of healthy adult children are not comparable to the support required by people with disability, and even less comparable to the needs of people with severe disability. In addition, children of the sandwich generation are likely to become carers of their parents.

Carers and their relationships are diverse and complex and the lives of carers, like our own, don’t always fit neatly into one category or another. There are overlaps, interconnectedness and changes to social group membership across time.  The higher profile of a particular group of carers, in this case the ‘sandwich generation,’ doesn’t necessarily equate to that group’s higher need for support and other resources. It does, however, highlight a growing group of people with care responsibilities that are likely to require support themselves as they age.

[i] Power, J. 2012, ‘The sandwich generation’, in the SMH, July 28 2012.                                                                            

[ii] AIHW 2012, ‘Living more years in good health’, Australia’s health 2012: In brief, p. 7.

[iii] ABS 2012, ‘Providing primary care to a person with a disability’ in 4125.0 Gender Indicators, Australia, 27/7/2012.

[iv] Gray, M.,  Qu, L., de Vaus, D., Stanton, D., 2010, ‘Divorce and the wellbeing of older Australians’, AIFS,  April 2010

[v] ABS 2010, ‘Living arrangements of people’ in 3236.0 Household and Family Projections, Australia, 2006 to 2031.

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