The ‘sandwich generation’
Midlife adults in the 21st century were sometimes termed the ‘sandwich generation’, because they were often responsible both for children and ageing parents. While almost all gave more help than they received, especially to children and grandchildren, being the ‘meat in the sandwich’ was not as uncomfortable as it sounds. Assisting other generations often enhances family relationships. Children who have received parental help are likely to act similarly towards their parents, and their own children, in the future.
Relatively few midlife adults care for older people at home full-time, but many help ageing parents who live elsewhere. Midlife people who live near their parents can help in person more regularly.
A 2010 study found that 79% of midlife adults gave their parents emotional support – they checked on them by phone, visited, took them out, read to them, wrote letters and shared leisure activities, like playing cards. They also helped with jobs around the house (69%), transport (56%), shopping (49%) and health needs (48%). They were less likely to give their parents financial help (40%). Women did more emotional caregiving than men, but men tended to give their parents more practical support.
Caring for Mum
Supporting elderly, unwell parents is a challenging but rewarding experience for some people. In a 2004 study Shona said: ‘It is better now that Mum is living with us. I still have to take time off for medical appointments and a lot of things … I organise from work. Sometimes I have to work from home if mum is sick, particularly confused or upset with something. … She has osteoporosis and dementia. She is still able to bath herself and dress herself, although gets confused with some articles of clothing. We provide the emotional support and companionship.’1
Most midlife adults offer this help gladly, though they admit it can be challenging. Some feel privileged to repay the support they received from their parents. For others it is a chance to show their affection in a practical way.
In the 21st century, instead of the traditional ‘empty nest’ after children have left home, there were more ‘cluttered nest’ families. As well as caring for ageing parents, many midlife adults supported adult children at home and children who had their own families. Women had children later than in the past – many started in their 30s – so some midlife adults were raising children while also caring for their ageing parents.
Adult children who still live in the family home are sometimes referred to as ‘parasite children’ or ‘boomerangs’. Many of these people have previously left home, but returned for a variety of reasons: relationship break-ups, job losses, or because they are saving to buy a house or go overseas. Some live otherwise independently, but others are treated like young children or teenagers again. Simon, aged 30, said: ‘It is like living in a hotel. There’s no expectation that I have to contribute at all. I’d only been back a few minutes by the time she’d ironed my first shirt. I feel very guilty about it.’2
While adult children get less practical help than their grandparents do, they get more emotional support and far more financial help. Overall, adult children are twice as likely to get money from their parents as they are to get help with daily tasks. Sons are more likely to get money than daughters. Most financial help goes to children in their early 20s, usually for tertiary education but also because of high levels of youth unemployment.
Parents from lower-income households are just as likely to help as parents who are better off. They do not want their children starting their adult life in debt, even if it means making sacrifices themselves.
The kind of help depends on culture as well as income. Māori parents expect to continue helping children financially and emotionally long after they leave home. Pacific families expect their children to contribute to household expenses and parental support as soon as they begin earning. Pākehā parents who can afford it might help their adult children buy a house or establish a business, but most expect their children to support themselves once they leave home.
A 2009 survey found that the most common age to become a grandparent was 50–54. A quarter of grandparents look after their grandchildren on a regular basis, but the proportion is much higher among Māori (34%) and Pacific people (52%). Most do regular care because the parents are in employment. Their help also gives parents a break from their children for social activities, study or daily tasks.
Some grandparents juggle paid work and caring commitments, while others give up paid work or change their working hours so that they can care for their grandchildren. While most are happy to do this, childcare can be financially and physically demanding.
Support is not one way. Midlife adults get help from their parents as well, in the form of emotional support (70% in a 2010 study), help around the house (47%) and money (38%).
Reciprocation is common in Māori and Pacific families, who typically share resources within their whānau. For many Māori, giving to kin and supporting the whānau is not only an obligation but a deep source of satisfaction. Sharing money, food and hospitality creates bonds of aroha (love) and reciprocity that knit the whānau together. In Pacific families, giving support to older parents often means sending money and goods to relatives overseas as well as helping out at home.