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Spread Thin

The “Sandwich Generation” used to apply to a temporary mid-life squeeze of caring for both younger children and ageing parents. Now, those years are broadening and for many New Zealand families, retirement plans are being impacted by the needs of older kids and geriatric parents.

By Sarah Catherall
Photographs by Victoria Birkinshaw

Marisa Newman had to downscale to a less stressful job because the single mother was overwhelmed with her caring roles.

It’s a Monday afternoon, and Marisa Newman is chopping mushrooms. She’s finally back home in her kitchen in Korokoro, on the hills above Petone, preparing dinner for two of her three children. Her middle child, Grace, is in Hutt Hospital with a hip infection and Newman has spent the last two days and nights at her 14-year-old’s bedside. At the same time, further up the North Island, Newman’s mother was admitted to Gisborne Hospital after a fall at her rest home.

“I’ve had no sleep for three days,” Newman says, laughing about the week she’s had. With three kids aged between 11 and 16, Newman, 50, is pulled between caring for her children and keeping an eye on her ageing parents. She rings her mother, Grace (after whom her daughter is named), every day, and every week she gets a call from her mother’s rest home with updates about her health or medication, or to request consent for something.

Meanwhile her father, Ray, still lives in the Gisborne retirement village he and Grace were living in before she moved into care. “Dad has dementia,” Newman says. “Mum is as sharp as a tack but not physically great. It wasn’t fun times for them anymore.”

Last year Newman returned to Wellington after a five-year stint living and working in Rarotonga with her children and their father, her former husband. Not only is she now responsible for her parents’ wellbeing, she’s also running her household as a single parent. She’s trying to buy her ex out of the house, which she calls her “big priority”, on top of which are the costs of groceries, shoes, power: “It’s constant.” Newman needs to work full-time to pay the bills, but she’s recently stepped back from her job managing the Rita Angus Retirement Village in Kilbirnie. Wrangling more than 100 staff and more than 300 patients was simply too much, so she transferred to a role as the village’s sales manager.

Her children don’t do any extracurricular activities because Newman doesn’t have the time to drive them around. She worries about them, too — she knows they’re all entering a challenging period of life. “It’s not like when they were young and you were putting a sticking plaster on a cut,” she says. “They go off to high school and you cross your fingers.”

Newman’s phone beeps — messages from her siblings in a family group chat. Of the three siblings, Newman holds medical power of attorney for her parents. “You get to your 50s and all these pressures combine. Sometimes I just go, ‘Oh shit, what else will happen?’ And then Mum ends up in hospital.”

When she left her family farm at 17, Newman never imagined that she would end up constantly worrying about her mum and dad. “I do feel like I’m parenting my parents,” she says. “Of course, you do this because you love them and care about them, but it can be challenging.” And it’s a challenge more and more of us are facing.

As in most developed  countries, New Zealanders are living longer — often well into their 80s and 90s. Between 1991 and 2020 the number of people aged 65 and over doubled to more than a million, a figure that’s projected to double again by 2056. Women are often delaying having children; where a generation used to span 25 years, now a generation gap of 35 years is common. More people are living longer, and living healthier lives, which means what’s known as the “fourth age” of life, marked by dependency and frailty, is also being delayed by about a decade.

In 2018, the census revealed that 431,673 people, about one in 10 New Zealanders (of whom about twothirds were women), were providing unpaid care work for a household member who was ill, elderly or disabled. A 2017 study, co-authored by Massey University professor Fiona Alpass, found that the average age of the carer was 51 years old and 65 per cent were doing it on top of paid work. The combination of responsibilities was a burden, often impacting their ability to continue working at the same level they had before. Another recent study found a fifth of baby boomers at the younger end of the cohort were struggling to retire because of the extra, often hidden, costs of looking after an old or unwell family member.

The government’s current policy is to keep older Kiwis living independently in their homes for as long as possible. After that, the choices are to either pour your life savings into a fee-paying rest home (if you have less than $240,000 saved, the state will pay), stay in your home and hope someone will keep an eye on you, or move in with children or other relatives. “With our ageing population, the government is relying more and more on family carers to keep people at home,” Alpass says. Despite the burden it can create for in-family carers, relying on family support is often of benefit to the elderly, as living in their homes or with whānau tends to make people happier. “We institutionalise people,” Alpass says, adding that the care burden could be alleviated by government-provided care and financial support. In the absence of such financial support, it’s not uncommon in some extended Pasifika families to nominate one person to stay home and look after dependants, whether they be elderly, very young, or disabled. Research and evaluation lead for Moana Research and former University of Auckland lecturer Seini Taufa told RNZ this arrangement allows everyone else in the household to go to work. “Without that contribution, the rest of the family wouldn’t be able to do what they’re doing. So, they become almost like the glue that keeps the family together.” She also told RNZ that any suggestion this work is a burden is rejected, and could even be considered offensive.

While older people are starting to require more care, adult children are also taking longer to move towards independence. According to the 2018 census, more than 64 per cent of young adults between the ages of 18 and 30 were living in the family home — an increase of about 20 per cent since 2006.

This age group is also less likely than previous generations to own their own home, even if they have flown the nest. In 1991, 61 per cent of people aged 25 to 29 years lived in an owner-occupied home (though this could include homes owned by parents or flatmates). By 2018, that had slumped to 44 per cent. Similarly, for those aged in their late 30s, home ownership dropped from 79 percent in 1991 to 59 percent in 2018, according to Statistics New Zealand.

A generation used to span 25 years — now 35 years is common.

“The housing market is a huge challenge, particularly for someone on a starting income,” says Professor Paul Spoonley, a sociologist at Massey University. He’s been noticing two trends in New Zealand of late. The first is that young adults are spending longer at university (following an American trend of spending up to eight years studying), and it’s becoming increasingly common to find people in their mid-20s who haven’t left home, Spoonley says.

The second is that even if they leave home during tertiary study, adult children often boomerang back after they graduate. “They’ll often choose to live at home as a cost-saving exercise,” Spoonley says. Loaded with debt from study and training, and with both rents and house prices booming around the country, living at home again starts to look pretty enticing.

In the 2015 report “Meeting the housing needs of multi-generational households”, university researchers Penny Lysnar and Ann Dupuis found that the reasons for three-or-more generation households included the high cost of housing, rising economic precarity among younger generations, caring for elderly relatives and more time spent in tertiary study. While cultural preferences were also a factor, Lysnar and Dupuis also found reason to question the narrative that multigenerational households were a phenomenon associated only with Māori, Pasifika and Asian communities, as they were featured among all major ethnic groups. In fact, the researchers wrote, it appeared such arrangements were a growing feature among Pakeha families. Census data extracted by Statistics New Zealand for the Listener also shows that between 2013 and 2018, the number of Pākehā living in households with three or more generations increased by 29 per cent — while in the same period, the number of three-or-more generation Pasifika households actually dipped by 3.5 per cent.

What’s known as life’s “third age” — what was formerly the golden age of relaxing retirement — is now increasingly still one of caregiving. The term “sandwich generation”, applied to those caring for both elders and children, used to describe people in their 40s and 50s. Now people in their 60s and sometimes 70s find themselves sandwiched between still dependent children and their parents, who are still alive but often frail and needing care, Spoonley explains.

This tracks with research conducted by Kate Prickett, a demographer and head of the Roy McKenzie Centre at Wellington’s Victoria University, which studies children and families. People are taking longer to begin their careers as tertiary study becomes more common than in previous generations, Prickett says. The delay in establishing a career can have a knock-on effect, delaying other big life events — like finding a partner and having children — that might prompt people to move out of home. “The unaffordability of going it alone, along with the delay in career and family, means there’s a greater period where there’s a window of time to actually move back in with our parents.”

Prickett points out that the equity gap between rich and poor young adults is also growing. Young adults from more advantaged backgrounds are more likely to shift back in with their parents than those from disadvantaged backgrounds. “Basically, those who stand to benefit the most or at all from staying home are more likely to,” Prickett says. Parents are often reluctant to ask their children for the full cost of their board, which delays their ability to save for retirement, as well as constraining what they can spend money on. A recent study of 1500 New Zealanders with adult children revealed that about half were subsidising their children in some way — a third allowed their over-18s to live at home for free, according to the global comparison site, Finder. In cases like these, returning home after university is a way for young adults to start saving for a down payment on a home or pay off some of their student debt.

In less advantaged families, adult children may be an integral part of the household finances. This phenomenon was highlighted during the Covid-19 lockdowns, when it was reported that hundreds of older teenagers were leaving school early in order to find paid work to help support their families.

In general, there are pros and cons of returning to the nest: grown-up kids expect more independence and can be less willing to follow household rules, but the good news is parents often get to enjoy a new friendship with their now-adult children.

At the wider social level, the way our extended families look is changing. Demographers are beginning to see the rise of what they call the “beanpole family”, as more couples choose to have fewer children or none at all, which means the family tree is no longer lush with branches of aunts, uncles and cousins.

Spoonley predicts a growing trend of smaller-sized families spread over at least three generations sharing a home, a phenomenon he has only recently started to observe. He talks about the beanpole family in his 2020 book The New New Zealand, saying there are several reasons for its rise: the older person has been left alone by separation or death and seeks company, and the increased longevity of parents and grandparents has increased the years in which members of a family might be part of a wider family unit.

“You get to your 50s and all these pressures combine. Sometimes I just go, ‘Oh shit, what else will happen?’ And then Mum ends up in hospital.”

Spoonley says the benefit is that three or more generations get to share their housing costs, although it’s more likely those in the sandwich generation are forking up. They’re also more likely to be the home owner, and they’ll be earning an income and paying the bulk of household costs, he says.

Similarly, demographers are also seeing an increase in “two-generation geriatric families”. According to Age Concern, half of New Zealanders entering retirement age have a parent still living. You can look across the ocean to the House of Windsor to see one example of how this plays out: Queen Elizabeth II was almost 76 when her own mother died at 101. Now the Queen is 96, and her eldest son, Prince Charles, 73, has shot past retirement age still waiting for the role he’s expected to fulfill.

Vicki Beagley relates. The 61-year-old would like to think her retirement will be a time when she can relax and stop worrying about someone in her immediate family, but she’s not sure that’s going to happen. Last year, the Manawatu-based university researcher was juggling taking her 89-year-old mother, Shirley, to her medical appointments — her mother has dementia and has had four hip replacements — with the needs of her four adult children. While most have left home, they occasionally boomerang back — two moved home during the Covid lockdowns. She and her husband, John, also have a 31-year-old son with Asperger’s who continues to live at home.

While her friends might be “off riding the Otago Rail Trail or walking the Hollyford track”, Beagley and her husband still have family to care for.

In December, Shirley moved to a rest home in Auckland to be close to Beagley’s two brothers, which relieved Beagley of being what she affectionately calls “Johnny on the spot”. “If you’re living close by, the role of being the person to care for an older parent always falls on you.”

She doesn’t begrudge being needed, but she says the juggle was a struggle. “I often think about the role reversal I’m experiencing now. I visit Mum and feed her mashed food and her drinks out of a sipper cup. It was just the way it was when I was a child, but this time it’s my mum.”

Caitlin Cherry pours Jif on the stovetop and scrubs. Her 12-year-old stepdaughter stands at their kitchen bench and sifts a cup of flour into a baking bowl. “Is this the right amount?” she asks, and 49-year-old Cherry goes over to check the composition of the biscuits they bake together every other weekend. In a corner of the lounge, Cherry’s 17-year-old son taps away on his laptop, preparing for university in the morning. Her elder son recently graduated from Victoria University and is visiting friends, but he’ll return home later, in time for dinner. The lasagne Cherry made earlier in the day sits on the bench, ready to go into the oven.

In areas like Wellington, flats are hard to find and they’re costly: according to rental bond data from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, median rent in the capital has soared by 50 per cent in five years: up from $400 a week to $600. Cherry doesn’t want her kids burdened with huge student loans, and with four kids between them, she and her partner don’t think they will ever downsize. In fact, she thinks the days of adult children permanently leaving home are gone. “My kids are fantastic and great company. They help around the house. But I feel for some people I know who have teenagers who are going through rough times.”

Sunday is the day Cherry and her partner get ready for the week: cooking, baking, cleaning and sorting washing. It also used to be the day for visiting her ageing mother. Frances, an 84-year-old author, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s about a decade ago, and four years ago became too frail to live on her own. After North & South spent time with Cherry for this story, she got back in touch in late April with the sad news that her mother had died. Frances spent her final years in the Rita Angus Retirement Village (the one Marisa Newman used to manage), a sprawling brick building a few kilometres away from her daughter’s home. Before her mother moved into aged care, Cherry used to take her to all her medical appointments — she had power of attorney over her medical care, while her siblings shared other care roles.

In her mother’s last months of life, Cherry found her demands more emotionally draining. Frances was moved into the hospital wing because she needed round the clock medical care. Every time a decision had to be made, a nurse, manager or caregiver would call. Cherry was often at work when her phone would buzz with distressing news. “I’ve got to go into a meeting that’s professional and I’m about to burst into tears,” she recalls. “It’s just a bugger that when you’re around 50, you’re worrying about your kids getting into the job market and into a position where they can be financially stable, and worrying about parents in old age, and also worrying about your own job and the responsibilities you have,” she says. “Sometimes the worlds do collide and it’s hard to keep them separate.”

With a busy, intense job in a senior role at Consumer New Zealand, two children and two stepchildren, by Friday evening she often flops on the couch, unable to do much more. “I’ve given so much of myself,” she says. She grappled with a nagging sense of guilt that she couldn’t do more for her mum, who would often become upset when she left after visiting. “I almost had to harden my heart, otherwise I felt terrible all the time,” she says. “I have my family and I also have staff to look after. I’ve got lots of people to care about.”

Photo of Caitlin Cherry.
Caitlin Cherry is at the height of her career while also juggling the needs of her adult children and was, until recently, on call for her ailing mother.

Sarah Catherall is a freelance writer based in Wellington.

This story appeared in the June 2022 issue of North & South.