September is National Grandparent’s Month. A perfect time to raise awareness of the club sandwich generation: those caught in the middle of a multi-layered caregiving existence. Chloe* is a good example. She’s thirty-seven years old, married, and a mother to two young children. She spent the last year working full time as a florist, caring for her family, and tending to the needs of her seriously ill and now deceased mother and two grandfathers. At first glance, Chloe fits into the often touted “sandwich generation,” defined as midlife adults who support a dependent child under the age of 18 and a dependent parent over the age of 65. However, Chloe also fits in the club sandwich generation, those who add grandparents to an already full caregiving plate. She reflected on this new phenomenon.
We’re losing parents and grandparents, not just parents. I even knew my great-grandmothers. I had one teach me how to sew. Losing my mother and two grandfathers all in the same year was a double whammy, and it’s not something our parents had to deal with.
Chloe’s experience resonates with the insights of sociologist Vern Bengtson who dedicated a chapter in his recent book to the unexpected role of grandparents in the lives of today’s midlife adults. Grandparents have emerged as a stabilizing force for many midlife adults for both good and bad reasons. On the good side, older generations live longer and in better health than ever before, and thus spend more and higher quality time with younger generations. Bengston tempered that good news with the bad news that many grandparents must also compensate for their grown childrens’ compromised parenting abilities due to high rates of divorce, single parenthood, incarceration and substance abuse. Bengtson’s longitudinal research showed that intergenerational caregiving “arrangements spread well-being up and down the family tree—almost always in the direction of need” whether from grandparents to grandchildren or the reverse later in life. Cue the club sandwich generation. In our qualitative research into Gen X caregiving and grief, Naomi Cahn and I saw how care flowed to the place of greatest need.
Care Flows from Grandparents
For the club sandwich generation, care began early in life and flowed from grandparents to grandchildren. Over eighty percent of our sample set of adults ranging from 29 to 49 years old experienced grandparent involvement at some point in their early years, and more than half of the respondents lived in close proximity. They connected the presence of a grandparent to the formation of a collective family identity and to the definition of their extended family’s private rituals, especially those involving holidays.
For a smaller percentage, grandparents played an even more important role in their upbringing. Nearly twenty percent of respondents lived with a grandparent for all or some of their childhood due to breakdowns in the marital or employment situation of a parent or to the parent’s substance abuse or incarceration, a topic covered by IFS previously.
The presence of a grandparent created a stable home and refuge. Keith, for example, told us about his experience as child. Keith was 39 years old, African-American, recently released from prison for selling drugs, and married to the mother of one of his three children. His parents divorced before he began elementary school and he described how he and his six siblings moved every year or so as his single mother took on new jobs or found a new roommate. When asked to name where he considered home, he responded quickly, “Oh, probably my grandmother’s house. We used to stay with her a lot of the time. That’s probably the only place I could say was home.” His memories of feeling safe with his grandparents fueled his own goal of staying out of prison so that he could create a stable home for his children in a way that his father had been unable to do so for him.
Care Flows to Grandparents
As grandchildren age, their care needs decline while the care needs of their grandparents grow. Intergenerational care relationships from the past translated to the expectation and fulfillment of reciprocal care. Cahn and I have written previously on the normative power that the biblical command to honor your mother or father had on our sample set, and that injunction to kibbud, which can be translated as burden, weightiness or honor, extended to grandparents as well as parents. This felt obligation to care is reflected in a study from Pew Research, which found that participants ranked caring for grandparents third behind a parent and a grown child for those whom they felt obligated to provide assistance to.
Accepting the burden of care for a grandparent stemmed from a deep sense of gratitude for the care and support given to them in childhood. For example, Georgia’s grandmother raised her along with her two sisters after their teenaged mother became drug addicted and lived a lifestyle not conducive to parenting children. They did not know their fathers. Georgia described how once she got to “cleaning and cooking age,” her mother sent for her, but she could not stay with her.
I called my grandmother and she came and got me, but two of my sisters stayed. They got on drugs and they’re both deceased.
In her late twenties, Georgia’s grandmother encouraged her to search for her father
I wrote letters. I said, I was conceived behind a nightclub on Elm Street. My mom was thirteen years old. This is what I was told. One reached my father. He wrote me back and said, “I remember you. I remember your mom. I remember that night. I always wondered where you were.” He told me that I had other sisters and brothers and that he really did wanna meet me…He introduced me to everyone. They picked up on some of my ways, how I handled myself. They said, “Oh, definitely. She’s a Williams.” I look exactly like the family, hair exactly like the family. So they all accepted me.
When her grandmother became terminally ill, Georgia knew she must honor her.
I left my job and thankfully I had good leave. I stayed with her and I would bathe her every night. It was a struggle ‘cause I was young in my marriage, but I told my husband, “I gotta do what I gotta do. ‘Cause if it wasn’t for this woman I don’t know where I would be.” In time, her care got to be too much and I had to put her in a nursing home. It was downhill from there. She didn’t last. My dad supported me. He said, “Well she’s the one who raised ya’ when I should have. So I gotta support you.” Talked about how good of a woman she was. He always thanked her for everything that she did for me ‘cause if it hadn’t been for her I would have never pursued finding him.
Georgia came to the interview to talk about the deaths of both her grandmother and her father. As an “outside child” (a term she used to describe herself), her stepmother and half siblings included her in caring for him as he died of cancer. She transported him to chemotherapy and sat vigil in the hospital for the final week of his life. She balanced those responsibilities with supporting her financially and emotionally volatile mother, two teen-aged daughters, and an infant granddaughter—yet another generational layer added to the club sandwich.
Georgia’s story is dramatic but resonates with many of the financial and emotional sacrifices made by mid-life adults to accommodate the needs of parents, minor children, and grandparents. Thankfully, Georgia had good leave at her job since, as a rule, grandparent care is not covered by the Family Medical Leave Act. In her case, she could have qualified for the twelve weeks of unpaid leave, since she could have claimed her grandmother acted “in loco parentis.” But most grandchildren fall outside of that category, though they still, like Chloe, feel an obligation to provide care. Expanding those eligible for FMLA to include grandparents, even those who had not stood in loco parentis, could be a first step in honoring the club sandwich generation. Georgia and Chloe highlight how grandchildren willingly and gratefully take on the burden of caring for grandparents in need, and how little support and honor the club sandwich generation receives.
*All names have been changed to protect the identity of respondents.
Amy Ziettlow is an affiliate scholar with the Institute for American Values, where she and Naomi Cahn conducted a Lilly Endowed study of Gen X caregiving and grieving titled, Homeward Bound: Aging, Death, and Dying in an Era of High Family Fragmentation. She is ordained in the mainline Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and most recently served as COO of The Hospice of Baton Rouge.