New Zealand's 'Sandwich Generation' growing as families have babies later and elderly live longer

The following article was published by NZ Herald.

Article
28 October, 2018

New Zealanders are increasingly caring for two generations at once - their kids and their parents - and it is driving many of them to breaking point.

They are part of what is known as the Sandwich Generation, because they are squeezed between their young and older family members.

And the number of them is growing, because New Zealand families are having children later, their parents are living longer, and their children are leaving home later, meaning they are dependent for longer. 

The phrase Sandwich Generation is little-used and understood in New Zealand compared to overseas, so Public Trust has carried out some research to measure its impact here.

The trust found that in New Zealand, those that fell into this category are most likely to be female, aged between 35 and 54, and living in a major city. Three-quarters of them are working, and most of them are caring for dependents under the age of 18.

The survey also found that caring for two generations at once had a significant emotional and financial toll.

"The worrying thing is how it impacts on them," said Public Trust's general manager retail Julian Travaglia, who led the research.

Of those surveyed, 77 per cent of those who belonged to the Sandwich Generation said they were stressed, and 38 per cent said they were at "breaking point". People in this generation had around 1.7 hours less in the day to spend on themselves - on sleeping or hobbies - because of their family commitments. 

Two-thirds of this group got third-party help to care for their parents or elderly family members, in particular transport, home maintenance, and personal care.

On average, they were spending just under $6000 on financial assistance for their elderly family members - compared to $4200 for people who did not have dependent children. One in five were spending $10,000 on support costs.

"For the average family budget, to take out $200 a week to financially support your parents or in-laws, that's a big chunk of their budget," said Travaglia.

In addition, they were spending an average of $5200 on each dependent child aged 18 and over. 

A few decades ago, New Zealanders with significant health or disability needs lived in care or died from their condition. But health advances meant caring had shifted out into the community for much longer than past generations.

Carers NZ chief executive Laurie Hilsgen said caring for family members was something New Zealanders had always done and was taken for granted. But it was starting to have serious consequences, especially for women.

"Two-thirds of carers are women, almost 90 per cent are workforce age, so if you're having to make the choice of juggling work and care that can be really hard, especially in places like Auckland with living and commuting costs, which force you to choose. 

"We talk about raising the retirement age above 65, but the reality is a lot of middle-aged women don't make it to the retirement age we have now because they have to leave work early to care for others, to keep the show together."

Because the Sandwich Generation was caused by a range of demographic changes, there was little the Government could do to respond. 

Hilsgen said workplaces could consider changes to assist people who were stretched by dual caring responsibilities. One solution could be allowing people to transfer their annual leave to other workers. 

"You have the workaholics, who never use their holidays or sick leave," said Hilsgen. "And then you have people who really struggle and feel they don't have quite enough leave. We could be more innovative around things like leave-sharing."

Another possible solution was establishing more creches or dementia programmes close to workplaces, like in Auckland's CBD.

"They can be close to you while you're at work, so you don't have huge commuting challenges, dropping people off or picking them up," Hilsgen said.

It is not all bad. While most people in the Public Trust survey expressed negative emotions about caring for their family members, many of them were also grateful to have both their parents and their children in their lives. 

"They also describe having a much greater feeling of being valued by the seniors in their lives," Travaglia said. "So in terms of a feel-good, they probably had a greater sense of being able to contribute something outside of themselves."

'IT'S OUT OF LOVE'

Paramjeet Singh barely ever sees his wife. 

He works afternoon shifts at Auckland Transport while she works mornings at Auckland Airport. 

"I write her a note in the morning on the mirror 'Honey, this is what I have done today, I will catch you up later'," he said.

"By the time I come home in the evening she is already asleep because she has to wake up in the morning for a 4am shift.

"It is only because of this scribbling pad that we communicate. We don't use the phone while working because our times are different and we are not allowed to use our phones."

Singh, 39, is one of the Sandwich Generation. He is simultaneously caring for his child and his parents. On top of his work, that leaves him with little time for himself or his partner Prabhjot.

He recently went on a trip to Hunua Falls with his wife and 10 year-old daughter Harleen. It was the first time they had spent some time together outside the house in two and a half years. 

"It creates a lot of stress between us because we don't spend much time together and we don't have face-to-face interactions," he said.

In the mornings, he looks after Harleen, sending her off to primary school. He accepts that she will probably live them until she marries - not only because of cultural reasons but because of financial necessity. 

In the evenings, he speaks to his parents and manages their medical problems. It is time-consuming and costly, he says. His father, 67, is diabetic and his mother, 66, has pancreatic problems.

His parents recently moved back to India to live. But if anything, that has increased his caring responsibilities. He sends around $400 a month for medical costs. And he talks to his mother every day on the phone when he gets home from work at around 9pm. 

Despite the pressures on him, he would not have it any other way. 

"As a son it's my responsibility to take care of them at this stage of life. It's out of love that I give it to them.

"Having family with me - it makes me happy, it motivates me."

The Sandwich Generation in NZ
* Most likely to be female, aged 35-54
* 58% are working full time and 25% work part-time
* 77% say they are stressed, and 38% say they are at breaking point
* Average spend of $5730 on assisting over-65s
* Additional spend of $5186 on every child over 18
* Average of 1.7 hours less each weekday to spend on themself (for sleeping, hobbies, household tasks)
(Public Trust/Pure Profile, survey of 500 people)


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