Saving the Sandwich Generation

President Obama has promised to support adults caring for elderly parents while scraping to send their own kids to college. But is his proposal strong enough?

Suddenly, President Obama has discovered the existence of the Sandwich Generation! In the run-up to tonight’s State of the Union, which focused on the trials of the middle class, he introduced a proposal to spend $102.5 million to support adult children taking care of elderly parents at home.

It’s about time. As the president said in his speech, “This recession has also compounded the burdens that America's families have been dealing with for decades.” Even before the Great Recession, middle-class adult children were falling into debt, squeezed between sending their kids to college and caring for ailing parents. I’ve written an upcoming book, Passages in Caregiving, to describe how we do it—by forfeiting our jobs, our homes, our own health care, and discarding any thought of retirement as a pipe dream.

Let me give you some numbers to demonstrate the burdens on the Sandwich Generation: Nearly 50 million American adults are now serving as unpaid family caregivers for aging parents or spouses. This is the reality inside one-third of American households. Today’s average family caregiver is a 48-year-old woman who holds down a paid job and spends 20 hours a week providing unpaid care for a relative or chronically ill spouse. Half of these selfless folks report a high level of stress.

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This overload of responsibilities lasts for an average of five years, often many more. Why? Because people are sent home from the hospital quicker and sicker to family members who are untrained, unprepared, and offered virtually no help from the government for long-term care at home. Think of your sister with MS, your dad with an enlarged heart and diabetes, or your spouse with early signs of dementia. My husband, Clay Felker, died 17 years after his first cancer due to secondary conditions that developed from treatment.

The problem is that President Obama’s $102.5 million for caregivers is a drop in the bucket when you consider how much money our vast army of unpaid caregivers saves the government. In 2007, the estimated economic value of family caregivers’ unpaid work was $375 billion. (And that’s calculated at the paltry going rate for home health care, $7.50-$9 an hour.)

What’s more, this outdated underestimate does not count the secondary cost of declines in caregivers’ own health. Many recent clinical studies show that long-term caregivers are at high risk for sleep deprivation, immune-system deficiency, muscle and joint problems, depression, chronic anxiety, loss of concentration, and premature death. In short, while it’s grand that Obama is recognizing the struggles of the Sandwich Generation, his State of the Union proposal offers far too little. Here’s hoping Congress will strengthen the proposal, and that states and local government will respond, too.

Gail Sheehy is an American writer and lecturer, most notable for her books on life and the life cycle. She is also a contributor to Vanity Fair, and can be found at