Family Roles in Transition: Caring for Our Aging Parents

If you are adults in your 40s and 50s, raising a family while caring for your aging parents, you are a proud member of the “Sandwich Generation.” It sounds like we are packing a bag lunch, doesn’t it? I wish it were that simple. The truth is, due to our increasing longevity, this is a new phenomenon. One that is as emotionally charged as it is complicated. The good news is, we are not alone.

“Today, 30 million households are providing care for an adult over the age of 50—and that number is expected to double over the next 25 years,” according to the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons). We knew we needed to plan for childcare and college, but now we are also going to need a plan for caring for our parents. This is a little more complex. Where do we start?

In 2010, we realized my Dad’s health was on the decline. There were a lot of decisions to be made. It was overwhelming, to say the least. Unfortunately, most of us don’t see it coming, so we end up making decisions while in crisis management mode. In hindsight, I wish we had planned ahead. Recently, I discovered an invaluable tool developed by AARP that is genius!! It can be found on their website ( and is called A Planning Guide for Families: Prepare to Care.

Getting started is the hardest part. Gather all family members, including, and most importantly, your parents. Talk about their goals, concerns and plans. Parents have a pretty good idea of what’s best for them. Think about your family’s “cast of characters,” and decide ahead of time who is best equipped to moderate this discussion. Bear in mind that some of this is uncomfortable and will need to be handled with care. Be prepared for a little resistance. It’s only natural that they will feel self-conscious as you discuss their future—medically, financially, residentially and regarding end-of-life choices. The Planning Guide provides 10 Tips on How to Approach a Difficult Topic.

The next step is to form your “team.” And trust me, you are going to want one. Sure, it may seem easier to avoid calling in the troops, but you will be overburdened. And in the long run, that isn’t healthy for anyone. Statistically, the eldest daughter is most likely to be chosen as the caregiver. Wait!? That’s me! It could be you, too—or maybe you are an only child, or you live out of town, but your siblings live nearby…. The point is that there will be a great many tasks that need to be done, in person and by way of emotional and financial support, so there’s something for everyone. Do not go it alone!

Gather all the necessary information by completing the Needs Assessment. This checklist includes: home maintenance and living situation, financial affairs, transportation needs, personal needs, healthcare, communication and adaptive devices (also included in the Planning and Care Guide). Ideally, your parents will help with this. Make sure to communicate that your intention is to help them, not to take control. Our parents are unaccustomed to being helped; “helping” others was their role. A “role reversal” may cause unease, and this project will take some time. If it begins to cause stress, try this: plant the seed, wait a little while, then bring it up later. Nothing good comes from making others feel defensive. With a little patience, in time these seeds will produce sweeter fruits.

Be aware also that there are a great many agencies and resources that help with the care and health maintenance of our folks. Visit AARP’s Benefits QuickLINK website. There you’ll find free and low-cost programs to help cover the costs of your parent’s groceries, utilities, housing, medication and healthcare.

Life for the “sandwich generation” isn’t easy. While we are prepared to adjust to our children’s increased independence, we are rarely prepared for our parents’ decreased independence. Be patient with them; but mostly, be patient with yourself. Make plans when you can, and it will all be okay. With access to support and resources, you won’t have to blaze this trail alone.