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Sandwich Generation: The 'Fair Share' Dilemma

Here’s how to make sure every family member accepts responsibility when it’s time to step up

posted by Jeff Brown, January 31, 2013 More by this author

Aging parents needing caregiving from their adult children.

Jeff Brown has nearly 20 years experience as a personal finance columnist for publications including The New York Times, The Nightly Business Report on PBS, The Philadelphia Inquirer and MSNBC.com.


Aging parents needing caregiving from their adult children.
iStockPhoto/ThinkStock
Jeff Brown writes a biweekly blog about the Sandwich Generation and the financial issues its members face as they try to help their parents and their adult children. The blog appears on Next Avenue and on the website of the public television show Nightly Business Report. A highly respected financial journalist, Brown brings personal expertise to the subject because he is part of the Sandwich Generation.

In the perfect Sandwich Generation family scenario, everything goes like clockwork. The grandparents, parents and grandkids all pitch in for the common good with their time, effort and money: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.
 
Well, in the real world, communist countries haven’t made this work and most '60s communes failed. Not surprisingly, despite their blood ties, families find cooperation has its limits, too.
 
When One Family Member Is Resistant
 
So, what do you do about the family member who simply won’t get with the program?
 
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Suppose all siblings — with the exception of one brother — want to help shoulder their parents’ medical costs. Or a twentysomething grandchild moves in with her grandma and won’t help with chores. What if the family has settled on a rental for a beach week together, but one sister won’t pay because she wanted to go elsewhere.
 
At some point, the family has to shrug its collective shoulders and accept the fact that Joe or Mary isn’t going to sign on and now everyone else will have to bear more than their share. A family, after all, is not a business, where you can fire problem workers. And as you’ve probably found, confrontation and pressure tactics tend to backfire.
 
Still, a little diplomacy can keep things from getting even worse and soothe the feelings of those who believe they’re being asked to carry too much of the load.
 
The First Step to Take
 
If someone in the family needs a hand, from a one-time cash outlay to routine day care, I think you can head off a defection in the ranks by immediately launching a conversation or a series of conversations with the clan. Giving everyone the big picture can minimize ugly surprises that would make some family member’s burdens worse.
 
A key part of these talks is discussing what each person could realistically do to be helpful.
 
A child or grandchild living near his aging grandparents is likely to be asked to provide more physical help, such as mowing the lawn or driving to the supermarket, than others who are far away. But to compensate for this, the geographically distant family members might need to kick in financially, if they can afford it.
 
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They could, for instance, provide gas money to whoever makes those supermarket runs. If nearby family members are running chores, the distant ones might pay for some of grandma’s medical expenses.
 
The List to Make
 
If I were taking charge, I’d start by feeling out everyone in individual conversations and producing a list of what needs to be done.
 
Then, rather than issue directives, I’d distribute the list in another round of conversations or emails, asking family members to suggest ways to get everything accomplished.
 
Hopefully, people would step up and those who couldn’t pitch in right away would promise to help later.
 
There’s a better chance of getting buy-ins if each person has a sense of what the others will contribute and if those who’ll be doing the most discover that the rest of the family appreciates it.
 
The goal, it seems to me, is to make everyone feel their concerns get a fair hearing, even if some will ultimately do more than others.
 
Some Resistance May Be Reasonable
 
It could be that certain family members are resistant for legitimate reasons, like overwhelming schedules or their own financial troubles. They might thaw a bit if they’re not backed into a corner, issued ultimatums or made to believe they’re letting everyone else down.
 
The fact is, it’s impossible to set up a system that’s fair to everyone all the time. Grievances are easy to air — someone’s doing less work, paying too little money or getting more than their fair share of help from others.
 
But you can minimize resentment over the “difficult” family member if everyone avoids focusing on the inequities and instead creates an atmosphere of cooperation and goodwill.
 
My Mother’s Tuition Assistance
 
When my mother set aside money for her three grandsons’ college tuition, she settled on equal amounts, which seemed perfectly fair. But with a six-year age range between the three boys, the investment for the youngest (my son Dash) had more time to grow than for my sister’s sons.
 
If we were inclined to be difficult, my sister and I could have wrangled about the difference. My sister could have argued that Dash’s college fund would likely be bigger than her sons’. I could have complained that starting with even amounts was unfair because Dash’s college costs, coming years later, would likely be much higher.
 
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But it’s not part of our family’s culture to have our noses out of joint. My sister and I felt that neither of us was entitled to our mother’s help in the first place and we were too grateful to quibble.
 
Similarly, I could gripe about having to do more than my fair share for my mom. I’m the one who installed a pet door for her dog and fixed the invisible fence, because my sister is in Oregon and I live only two hours from Mom’s home in the New York suburbs. But I didn’t complain because I benefit from having my mother nearby and my sister spends a lot on travel to visit Mom. It’s cool.
 
Addressing Big Imbalances
 
Granted, these examples are small stuff and other families face much larger imbalances.
 
A child who single-handedly spends years caring for a sick parent certainly has a right to expect some type of gesture from other family members to show that the work is appreciated. Siblings could contribute in another way — financially, perhaps. Or the parent could make a special “thank you” provision in his or her will.
 
It’s hard to put a dollar value on every form of familial assistance. In the end, the books will probably never be in perfect balance.
 
That’s why I think it doesn’t pay to assess everything with too sharp a pencil. Also, the unexpected happens. Sure, one family member may seem to be ducking his share now, but he might come through later when another need arises.
 
Or maybe not. Who knows? Best not to worry about it too much.
 
Peace and love, baby. Peace and love.

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