But like thousands of working adults in Maine, Chaples cannot afford to drop everything and become a full-time caretaker to an aging or seriously ill parent. She is a single mom raising a 4-year-old son, and she has a career as a teacher. The pressure on working adults to meet daily job and family responsibilities can feel overwhelming when a parent becomes gravely ill.
“It’s like being at the bottom of the mountain waiting for the avalanche to come, not being able to move,” said Chaples, who lives in Bangor.
The number of working adults in Maine who are caring for both children and parents is on the rise, according to professionals who work on aging and women’s issues. They have dubbed those caught between dependent children and parents “the sandwich generation.”
There are no definitive, Maine-based data on how many people this phenomenon affects, but organizations that offer resources for working families say it’s real. Reasons for the increase in sandwich generation members include the growing senior population, the decision by many adults to wait until their 30s or 40s to have children, and the exorbitant cost of professional 24-hour care.
The trend is especially challenging for women, who are twice as likely as men to become the designated caretaker for an aging or ill parent.
“This is an issue that comes up for the women that we serve, and one that many of our staff and colleagues are facing – whether they are working or managing their own business,” said Gilda Nardone, executive director of New Ventures Maine, a nonprofit organization based in Augusta that focuses on business and career development.
For Colleen McCracken, it started with a visit to see her 73-year-old mother in Florida.
McCracken, CEO of Planet Dog in Westbrook, said a friend of her mom’s had called with some disturbing news. She had been acting confused and forgetful, even showing up at other people’s houses thinking they were her own. McCracken suspected that her mom had developed Alzheimer’s disease.
After consulting with doctors, McCracken decided to bring her mother to Maine to live with her. But like most working adults, McCracken could not be there to watch and protect her mother 24 hours a day.
One night, her mom fell down the stairs. She recovered from the fall, but the accident forced McCracken to realize that an assisted living situation would be better for her mom.
Even with her mother in a safe place, McCracken said it can be difficult to balance her caretaker duties with other family and work responsibilities.
“I would say the hardest part is the time,” McCracken said. “Where do you find the time?”
In addition to being a deeply personal phenomenon, the sandwich generation trend is also an economic one, said Rebecca Ness, owner of Senior Planning Advisors and a board member of the Alzheimer’s Association Maine Chapter.
Ness, McCracken and other women business leaders spoke about the challenges of the sandwich generation at a February seminar in Falmouth organized by Women in Family Business, part of the Institute for Family-Owned Business.
In Maine, which has nearly 20 percent more baby boomers than the national average, about 50 more people turn 65 each day.
Given the high cost of 24-hour professional care in Maine, most seniors who need care are attended to by family members. According to the 2010 census, 27.1 percent of Maine households contain at least one senior, compared with 24.9 percent nationally.
“In the Greater Portland area, the average cost for assisted living is over $66,000 a year,” Ness said. “Medicare does not cover long-term care services. Medicare does not cover assisted living.”
The impact of senior care on employees and their employers is staggering, according to Ness. Nationally, 61 percent of those caring for parents are employed, she said, and 68 percent of those workers say they’ve had to make adjustments to their work schedule. A 2010 MetLife study of the sandwich generation pegs the value of lost productivity in the workplace at $33 billion.
According to the San Francisco-based Family Caregiver Alliance, a national study of working women caregivers in 1999 by MetLife Mature Market Institute, National Alliance for Caregiving and the National Center on Women and Aging found that 33 percent had to decrease their work hours, 29 percent passed up promotions, assignments or training opportunities, 22 percent took a leave of absence, 20 percent switched from full-time to part-time work, and 16 percent simply quit their jobs.
Portland resident Heidi Farber said that since her 88-year-old father suffered a stroke in 2015, she has traveled to visit her parents in Indianapolis about 15 times. Her mother, who is 85, has debilitating and painful osteoporosis.
Farber, who works for Hospice of Southern Maine as a fundraiser and events manager, said she spends two to three hours a day taking care of various tasks for her parents such as paying bills, making calls on their behalf and coordinating their 24-hour professional home care.
“I call it my other job,” she said. Farber also has an 18-year-old daughter, and the family is hosting two exchange students, one from China and the other from Chile. “I would say I’m very tired, and it presses upon every intersection of my life.”
Being a member of the sandwich generation can devastate the caretaker’s personal finances, said Karen Milliken, vice president and portfolio manager at the investment firm R.M. Davis Inc. in Portland. She said the key to avoiding disaster is to begin a financial dialogue with aging parents long before a potential crisis hits.
Many children of dependent parents know little about the parent’s financial situation and feel uncomfortable asking, Milliken said. They don’t understand the costs of long-term care, the varying levels of care, or the types of insurance coverage available for such care.
In some cases, caregivers sacrifice their own financial future for the sake of their parents’ health, Milliken said, one of the cardinal sins of personal finance.
“Don’t raid your retirement savings to pay for your child’s education or your parents’ health care,” she said.
Some states have begun to tackle the sandwich generation problem at the policy level, said Eliza Townsend, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby and Maine Women’s Policy Center in Augusta.
New Jersey, Rhode Island and California all have created emergency funds from a portion of payroll taxes that can be used to supplement long-term caregivers’ lost wages, Townsend said. Maine law requires employers to let workers take a leave of absence for long-term care, but it doesn’t require them to pay workers anything while they are on leave.
“One of the most important things we can do is adopt a system of paid family leave,” she said. “It’s overwhelmingly women who step out of the workforce to care for children as well as elderly parents. They pay a significant financial penalty for this.”
Farber noted that there has been a significant upside to taking on the role of caretaker to her parents. It has brought her closer to them, and she also sees it as an opportunity to show them her gratitude for all of the things they have done for her over the years. Farber added that her husband, daughter, brother, sister and colleagues at work have been very supportive and helpful.
“It has been very meaningful for me, and I feel privileged to be making a difference,” she said.