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Expert Tips on Supporting Elderly Parents

You’re the sandwich filling – whether you’re sweet or salty is up to you… 

14 August 2017
6 minute read

Young lady hugging elderly parents

Lindi Johnson is a married mother of three. Things in her home have always been a little tight financially, with; five mouths to feed, three children to clothe and school, and the cost of living ever increasing. Then last year, Lindi’s mother approached her with a confession. Her retirement savings were almost depleted and she could only afford to cover her costs for a few more months.

“It was a huge shock for me,” says Lindi. “I had always known that at some point in the future, my mom would end up living with me – but I had no idea it would be so soon, or that she would have no money to contribute.”

Lindi, her husband Jacob and her mother sat down together in an “emergency meeting”. Lindi’s husband works in finance, so he was able to take stock of the financial realities of their situation. They drew up a list of Lindi’s mom’s expenses and worked out what they could cut and what was absolutely essential.

Lindi’s mom owned her fully paid-off house, which was a very useful asset. They decided to do a few small renovations to get it “rental ready”. This meant that when she moved in with Lindi, she had an income to cover the costs of her medical aid, car insurance, petrol and some lifestyle expenses. She was also able to sell her extra furniture to help cover the costs of the renovation.

Lindi admits that there are financial stresses to having her mother living with her. “Our food budget was stretched to start with, and now it’s stretched even more. But my mom also helps with a lot of things - like school lifts and babysitting - so there’s less pressure on us in those areas now. We make it work and try to see the positives in the situation.”

If you, like Lindi, are part of the “sandwich generation” – a term that has been coined to describe adults who are responsible for both the generation below and above them – then you probably find that your budget is stretched like an elastic band. But there are some steps you can take to confront the situation and ease the tension.

Have an honest conversation about your joint income and assets

the key to successfully managing your sandwich generation relationships is clear communication

As in Lindi’s situation, the key to successfully managing your sandwich generation relationships is clear communication. You need to know what your parents have to live on, what you can afford to spare and whether they have any assets that they can sell to contribute to the household expenses.

Look at current and future costs too. If they move in with you, what additional expenses will you incur? Can you afford to pay for them to live in a retirement home or frail care facility? Do they need nursing care?

You should both be completely honest about the realities of your situations so that any future expectations are based in reality.

Look into their medical aid, life insurance and other policies

As part of the financial discussion – but important enough to warrant its own mention – find out what insurance policies your parents have in place. For instance, try to make sure they are able to keep up their medical aid.

“If you let a medical aid lapse for more than 90 days, you may be subject to a waiting period for certain conditions,” says Ricky Rohrbeck, a financial advisor with Select Independent. “If the period is more than two years, then the member could also be billed late joiner penalties.”

For this reason, it is a very good idea to maintain your parents’ medical aid if you can – it not only protects you from higher premiums if they re-join at a later stage, but also prevents you from having to cover their medical expenses or let them be treated in a government hospital.

Ricky advises putting your parents on a separate medical aid rather than adding them as an adult dependant on yours. “This allows you flexibility in how you deal with their plan – you can put them on a higher or lower plan than yours according to their needs, rather than having them bundled with the rest of your family.”

There are many options you can look into – for instance, the Discovery Key Care plan, which has no savings component and limits the patient to visiting network hospitals, is billed according to your income – so members earning R0 to R8 000 pay only R914 per month.

Your parents may also have a life insurance policy, which it would be beneficial to maintain even if you have to chip in. Again if this lapses it can be difficult to repurchase at a later date at the same premiums. Ricky says that while it is unpleasant to think of, this is a way that you could ultimately get some of your costs back.

Accept that you may have to make some sacrifices

While it’s important to acknowledge a few non-negotiables, you have to accept that there will be some sacrifices as well. If your parents will be sharing your home, or if you are helping to fund their retirement home, finances will be tighter. Look at your lifestyle and your budget and try to make peace with all the ways in which things will have to change.

Discuss whether your parents can support you in some ways

If your parents are willing and able, they could help you out with some of the work of taking care of your own children. If your parents can watch your kids for you after school, you save on aftercare. If you spend an hour a day doing school lifts, perhaps your parents could take over that task and free up some of your time. If they are living with you, they could also help with meal planning and preparation.

Look at other ways to earn income

If things really are tight financially, you could look at ways to earn extra income as a family. Could you make baked goods to sell at the office? Could your mom babysit kids in the neighbourhood? If she babysat your kids two nights a week, could you work extra hours to earn more? It might be possible to expand your income when more adults allow for greater flexibility.

Top tip! Check out for flexible jobs to help moms (or grans) earn a little extra.

Ask other family members for help

Remember that just because your parents are struggling doesn’t mean you have to take on the full financial responsibility of caring for them. If you have brothers or sisters, discuss your financial situation with them and find out if they can make a contribution to the additional expenses you are incurring. 

Embrace the sandwich

While being financially responsible for your parents as well as your children may come with its stresses, there is also a lot to be gained from solving these as a family. Your children will benefit from understanding you helped your parents when they were in need, and your parents will be grateful to you for stepping in. Kids will have additional loving adults in their daily lives, and their grandparents will have the stimulation and connectedness of family life. If you end up living together or working together for the good of the family, you may discover that there are many surprising positives. Try to look on the bright side of the sandwich and embrace the benefits that your new circumstances will offer.

Frequently asked questions

The sandwich generation refers to adults who are simultaneously responsible for caring for both their children and their ageing parents.

Open communication is crucial. Have an honest conversation about joint income, assets, and potential expenses. Look into your parents' medical aid and life insurance policies to ensure they are adequately covered.

Consider alternative options, such as renting out their property or making small renovations to create additional income streams.

Having a separate medical aid plan for your parents offers flexibility, allowing you to tailor it to their specific needs.

Living arrangements and finances may become tighter. Be prepared to make adjustments to your lifestyle and budget.

If your parents are willing and able, they can contribute by assisting with tasks like babysitting or meal preparation.

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