There was a time when couples looked forward to some peace and quiet around the house, some time to themselves. The kids were grown and on their own. Their parents were financially and physically independent.
But increasingly, adults in their 40s and 50s find their financial and caregiving responsibilities haven't ended. A study by Pew Research Center finds 47 percent of adults in the 40s and 50s age bracket have a parent over age 65 and are either raising a young child or financially supporting a grown one.
About 15 percent find themselves in the so-called "sandwich generation," financially supporting both an elderly parent and a child. The survey, however, finds most of the financial pressure is coming from adult children, who have been unable to find launch careers.
The survey found that the number of people in the "sandwich generation" has remained fairly constant in recent years, but the amount of money they are required to spend to support family members has gone up quickly.
In the category of adults in their 40s and 50s who have at least one child age 18 or older, 73% report providing at least some financial help in the past year to at least one child. Many of the children receiving support are still in school but others say they have been unable to find jobs that pay enough for them to support themselves.
The Pew researchers say the Great Recession and slow recovery have taken a disproportionate toll on young adults. In 2010, the number of young adults who had jobs was the lowest it had been since the government started collecting this data in 1948. Those who were employed from 2007 to 2011 saw their pay cut more than any other age group.
Plans on hold
All this means a lot of "empty nest" plans have to be put on hold, creating a mixed bag of emotions. On one hand, parents want to be helpful. On the other, there are feelings of uncertainty, frustration and sometimes exhaustion.
"We mostly found very positive feelings about adults helping their children in the emerging adulthood stage of life, from around ages 18 to 30," said Karen Hooker, director of the Oregon State University (OSU) Center for Healthy Aging Research, who recently conducted a similar study. "Feelings about helping parents weren't so much negative as just filled with more angst and uncertainty. As a society we still don't socialize people to expect to be taking on a parent-caring role, even though most of us will at some point in our lives. The average middle-aged couple has more parents than children."
Hooker and her team also conclude that an economic recession and tough job market have made it hard on young adults to start their careers and families. At the same time, many older people are living longer, which adds new and unanticipated needs that their children often must step up to assist with. The researchers found that, while many couples anticipated the need to assist their children, they were less prepared when their parents needed assistance.
Many middle-aged people told Hooker it was difficult to make any plans, due to disruptions and uncertainty about a parent's health at any point in time. And most said they we're willing to help their aging parents, but a sense of being time-starved was a frequent theme.
"It brings my heart joy to be able to provide for my mom this way," one study participant said. "There are times when it's a burden and I feel resentful."
The dual demands of children still transitioning to independence, and aging parents who need increasing amounts of care is causing many of the study participants to re-evaluate their own lives. The experience has prompted some to reflect on their own futures.
"I don't care if I get old," a participant said. "I just don't want to become debilitated. So I would rather have a shorter life and a healthy life than a long life like my mom, where she doesn't have a life. She doesn't have memories. Our memories are what make us who we are."