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An emotional cost for the ‘sandwich generation’

As the first baby boomers turn 60 and many look ahead to retirement, millions in this generation are facing a new and often unexpected responsibility: the care of an aging parent. It’s role reversal that can rock the foundation of a family and exact an emotional toll on everyone involved.

Andrew and Cristina Parks planned for a family of four — down to the size of their kitchen table.

But when Andrew’s 75-year-old father suffered a stroke, he and wife Cristina knew their family would grow to five. “I guess it’s almost as life-changing as having a kid in the sense that you’re adding another person to your household,” says Cristina Smith Parks.

Andrew’s spot at dinner is a metaphor for many in the baby boomer generation — in the middle: raising two young children and caring almost full-time for his dad. Then, there’s the job and the marriage.

With both children to raise and an aging parent or two to care for, many in the so-called “sandwich generation” are struggling with who should come first. The answer is usually simple: everyone but themselves.

“It’s routine for me to feel like I’m not doing enough to help my dad and to make his life fulfilling,” says Andrew.

Sociologist Vern Bengston says guilt and the fear of imminent loss are common. “One of the anxieties the ‘sandwich generation’ situation creates is the knowledge that one of the ends of the sandwich is going to die soon,” he says.

Bengston says many caretakers suffer from depression, but that the elderly parent can be equally troubled by worries of being a burden. For his part, Bill Parks heads to a senior center to give everyone some space.

The role reversal can be emotionally devastating and life-changing. The Parkses moved across the country and cut back on work to make Bill part of the family.

“There are days when I kind of wish it was just us, but really, those days are not that many,” says Andrew.

And there are unexpected rewards, like the friendship between their daughter Fiona and her grandfather.

And at dinner, the table seats five … just fine.