Probing Question: What is the sandwich generation?

If you didn’t know better, you might think the Sandwich Generation was the name of a new show on the Food Network. In reality, the recipe for this kind of sandwich consists of three generations, with elderly grandparents as one slice of bread, dependent children as the other, and, in the middle, Baby Boomer parents who are spread thin trying to be caretakers for all their loved ones.

Increasingly, this caregiving is taking place under one roof, says Matt Kaplan, an intergenerational specialist in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences. “The revival of multigenerational households is a hot topic these days,” he explains. “As of 2008, a record 49 million children and adults, or 16.1 percent of the total U.S. population, now lives in a family household that contains at least two adult generations or a grandparent and at least one other generation. That’s up from 12 percent in 1980, and means that one in ten American children now lives with a grandparent.”

As a 2011 nationwide survey discovered, recent economic realities are partly responsible for this growing trend, notes Kaplan. “Given the reality of today’s high unemployment and a rising number of home foreclosures, the number of households in which multiple generations of the same family double up under the same roof has spiked significantly,” he explains. “From 2007 to 2008, the number of Americans living in a multigenerational family household grew by 2.6 million.” Other key factors, notes Kaplan, include shifting demographic and cultural trends, including the rising share of immigrants in the population and the rising median age of first marriage of all adults.

Although the demands of living with and caring for aging parents are real (often including loss of privacy, increased stress and money worries) Kaplan says he has mixed feelings about the term Sandwich Generation. “While the phrase may help people quickly picture what you’re talking about, it also portrays caregiving in a one dimensional and undesirable way,” he explains. “We need to remember that the care recipient isn’t only a taker of family resources, time, energy, and patience, but can contribute as well.”

Studies point to many potential benefits of a multigenerational home environment, says Kaplan. Pooling resources can mean more financial stability and a greater availability of emotional support, and children can learn valuable life lessons from their grandparents’ stories and advice. Says Kaplan, “All members in the household receive more chances to give and receive attention from those they love. What’s more, grown children have a chance to address any 'unfinished business’ with their elderly parents. In general, when there are stronger bonds between the young and older generations of a family, this contributes to a sense of family identity and has implications for ensuring family continuity.”

It doesn’t just happen automatically though, he notes. “It helps to establish rituals, traditions and routines that add to a sense of family unity such as family dinners, game nights, and movie nights.” It’s also important for the “middle generation” to ask for help from siblings and other relatives, spend quality time with their spouse and children, and clearly define house rules and boundaries.

When conflicts arise, the important thing is to keep communication open, adds Kaplan. “Participating in family meetings and learning about conflict resolution are learning opportunities for kids as well.”

“These are trying times for young people trying to figure out their careers or get started on their own. Often, grandparents and great grandparents can offer experience and wisdom that parents can’t,” Kaplan says. “Many older family members have lived through economic hardship and dealt with a lot of uncertainty, so they know how to survive. They have figured out how to be frugal when it is necessary and how to finance a lifestyle.”

It might be that the only way we can survive this current economic downturn, Kaplan concludes, “is to come together in ways that utilize each generation’s knowledge, fortitude and compassion for helping others. Let us not lose sight of the fact that older adults have much to teach and contribute to younger generations, especially during trying times such as these.”

Perhaps, jokes Kaplan, the multigenerational family is less of a sandwich and more of a potluck meal, where everyone brings something different to the table.

Matthew Kaplan, Ph.D., is a professor in Intergenerational Programs and Aging at 814-863-7871 or by e-mail at msk15@psu.edu.

Last Updated January 25, 2012