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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Sandwich Generation

More families caring for children and grandparents

By Christina Quick
Dec. 12, 2010

When the eldest of Shelly Agrimson’s six children left for college five years ago, the family home didn’t become less crowded. The same day the teen moved out, Agrimson’s ailing mother-in-law took up residence in the newly vacated bedroom.

“I hadn’t even changed the sheets on our daughter’s bed when Grandma moved in,” says Agrimson, of Great Falls, Mont.

Agrimson has since had three more children leave the nest. Yet she still homeschools her two youngest children, ages 11 and 13, while caring for her 84-year-old mother-in-law, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and a host of other medical problems.

Such multigenerational living arrangements are increasingly common. Approximately 6.6 million U.S. households in 2009 included at least three generations of family members, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That represents an increase of 30 percent since 2000.

When the term “multigenerational” is more broadly defined to include at least two adult generations or a grandparent and grandchild, a record 49 million — or one in six people — live in such households, according to a recent report by the Pew Research Center.

Many multigenerational households are made up of middle-aged adults simultaneously caring for children and elderly family members. The Pew Research report speculates that a downturned economy and cuts in Medicare funds may be partly responsible for the trend. In addition, the larger number of baby boomers translates to a greater number of potential caregivers for their parents.

“The empty-nester home is becoming less common as the multigenerational household becomes more common,” says Dave Weston, director of Assemblies of God Senior Adult Ministries. “A growing number of adults find themselves as a part of the sandwich generation — adults who are caring for the needs of their children while at the same time caring for the needs of their parents. This creates unique challenges for the adult who becomes the caregiver.”

Stretched between parenting and caregiving responsibilities — and the guilt and stress that can accompany those dual roles — members of the sandwich generation often carry a heavy load.

“Everyone has a different style of attending to loved ones, and how much to do or not do for them is an ongoing balancing act,” says Brenda Spina, an Assemblies of God minister and director of the Center for Family Healing in Menasha, Wis. “The stress, emotionally and physically, on your time and energy can place you into a mode of autopilot where you wonder if you will ever feel something other than fatigue again.”

As the parents of three homeschooled teens, Diane and Phil Riley of Springfield, Mo., already had their hands full when Phil’s mother came to live with them three years ago. The elderly woman suffered from ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, which left her unable to walk or even feed herself.

“Her needs consumed all our attention,” says Diane. “Sometimes it took all five of us working at the same time to care for her.”

Then, in March 2009, the bottom dropped out when the couple’s 17-year-old son, Alex, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer. Though both Diane and Phil are registered nurses, the demands of running a household and caring for two seriously ill family members overwhelmed them.

“If we had not had our faith, it would have been hard for us to make it through that,” Diane says. “We had a lot of people praying for us, and there were times when we could feel those prayers. That was the only thing that got us through.”

Earlier this year, Phil’s mother died in the family home at the age of 78. Alex completed his treatments in October 2009 and is now cancer-free.

“I did feel like we were the classic sandwich generation,” Diane says. “For Christians, we shouldn’t look at that the same way the world does. We need to look at what God is asking us to do. He probably isn’t going to ask everybody to bring a sick relative into their home, but we need to seek out God’s will with an open mind of obeying.”

The burgeoning number of multigenerational households may signal a return to family living arrangements from a bygone era. In the early part of the 20th century it was not uncommon for several generations to live together under the same roof as depicted by The Waltons, a 1970s television series about a multigenerational household living in Virginia during the Great Depression.

After World War II, extended family living arrangements waned as the nuclear family increasingly gained acceptance as the societal norm. Yet after shrinking to their lowest statistical levels in the 1980s, the multigenerational household has made a comeback in recent years.

As baby boomers age, the trend toward multigenerational living isn’t likely to reverse course. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services predicts a future shortage of health care workers to meet the needs of an elderly boomer population. Many baby boomers may need to rely on children and other family members for assistance.

“Caring for others can be a big source of stress, but to me it’s a good stress because I know it’s what I should be doing,” Agrimson says. “When I get frustrated, I have to realize that’s just an emotion. I think the Lord would have us go beyond what we see and feel, and do what’s right.”

CHRISTINA QUICK is a freelance writer and former Pentecostal Evangel staff writer. She attends Central Assembly of God in Springfield, Mo.

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