I had the pleasure of interviewing Lori Bitter, author of The Grandparent Economy, for our Caregiver Smile Summit. We explored the growing phenomenon of the Club Sandwich Generation, typically boomers taking care of older parents while also caring for Millennial kids and often grandchildren.
Lori has done intense research around the grandparent segment. One of the things she has noticed is that there has been a tremendous rise in multi-generational living in western countries.
In some cases, people had no choice but to live that way when the 2008 recession hit. Young people lost many more jobs than their older counterparts during the recession.
They were in financial risk, and so out of necessity, they moved in with parents or grandparents. With the recession over, the generations came to find they kind of liked this living arrangement.
One reason why is that it is serving caregiver needs on both ends of the continuum. Lori likens this to a “Back to the Future” phenomenon as this multi-generational living was a way of living in the 1930s and 1940s.
In the U.S. alone, there are at least 1.5 million young people providing care for older people as family caregivers. A surprising statistic that came out last year reveals that 25% of family caregivers are Millennials. And since many do not self-identify, the numbers could be much larger.
Obviously, this deprives young people of opportunities for work and education. Lori says that children as young as 10 may be taking care of a grandparent at home. Schools often aren’t familiar with the circumstances and view students simply based on grades, which certainly are at risk in these situations.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, one in every three households in the U.S. is a grandparent-led household. Five million of those are raising grandchildren, many times without parents present. Some of the reasons parents have not been present are the overseas wars on terror that are being fought.
I know this personally, as my daughter and my former son-in-law have both deployed for the Navy – once, both at the same time – and grandparents had to step in and help with the young kids.
The opioid epidemic is also devastating families. Lori cited a most recent statistic showing that 100 people a day die from addiction. Unfortunately, those numbers are expected to grow.
Across the socio-economic spectrum, as grandparents were moving toward retirement, they got blindsided by the recession. Now they make daily decisions on whether to buy medication they need or send their grandchildren to an after-school program.
Lori says that some of these situations literally arise overnight, with children more or less left at the doorstep. And grandparents have to learn what to do next – from guardianship issues to schooling, and everything in between.
Most boomers have talked about downsizing at some point. Many who have not saved in a 401(k), or have a pension, are relying on their house equity to help them both downsize and still live comfortably.
Now boomers can’t sell what was supposed to be their lifeline. They often support grandkids in small ways that add up to big money, like paying cell phone bills and car insurance.
So, because of circumstances, we now have a generation of people who are on shaking financial ground. The same are also not taking care of themselves from a health standpoint.
Because only a small portion of people can afford continuing care retirement communities, or even assisted living, the desire to age in place has become a necessity to do so. Lori is seeing some trends:
Baby boomers in Western countries were one of the first generations to choose to be single in mass numbers. That has led to a phenomenon of elder orphans, with no family to take care of them, which causes loneliness and social isolation.
While Lori believes multi-generational living is a good thing, elder orphans can choose to live with others. That’s when you see services like Silvernest, a home matching service, pop up.
Often the matching is not older adult to older adult but young people to older adults. That helps alieve social isolation for older people while providing care assistance.
Builders are starting to design and construct multi-generational homes. Granny Flats, Granny Pods and Granny Garages have become a thing, allowing generations to live closer.
In Japan, young healthier elders are taking care of older elders. People in their 50s to 70s are taking care of people in their 80s, 90s and even 100s.
Lori is passionate about finding ways for the generations to connect. As the ratio of family caregivers to older family members declines, she believes we have to get younger people involved in aging issues. Yet many schools are unfamiliar with ageism issues or the size of the market and the opportunities that it presents.
Lori points out that ageism runs both ways as we, older whipper snappers, have preconceived notions and biases toward our younger family members, too. She says we have to get beyond all that for the generations to connect.
I think it does come back to some old-school thinking. When I was a kid, we looked after our neighbors and the neighbors nurtured us kids. If my mother was working, believe me, my neighbors knew what I was up to for sure.
Lori believes we have to get back to some of that. I had one elder in my book lament that, “We no longer have neighborhoods. We just have streets.”
The club sandwich generation may have grown out of necessity, but it provides so many opportunities to grow as a society.
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What do you think? Are you impacted by this club sandwich phenomenon? Are multiple generations living together in your family? Are you an elder orphan? What do you do to thrive and not just survive? And what are your communities doing to foster more intergenerational acceptance and cohesion? Please join the conversation below!