Friday , September 29 2023

Spread thin: sandwich generation biting off more than they can chew

As Hong changed her one-year-old daughter’s diaper, her mother, who has severe Alzheimer’s, sat on the floor, having wet her pants.

It is not the first time that such situations have had the 32-year-old woman at her wit’s end.

One weekend last year, when Hong’s daughter was learning how to walk and her 70-year-old mother hobbled around with a cane, the house-help returned to her hometown to handle some personal matters.

Hong had to leave her daughter crying in the crib often to assist her mom as she moved from the bedroom to the bathroom. Her mother would need to use the toilet frequently each time the weather changed.

Today, Hong’s daughter is able to run freely around the house, but her mother’s legs have become weaker and confined her to lying down in one place, most of the time.

After her father died, Hong has become the sole support for her mother. Her younger sister moved far away after getting married and is living a difficult life; so she cannot provide much support in caring for their mother.

Hong spends her mother’s pension of more than VND7 million ($304) to hire a caregiver. For an additional VND3 million, she could have her mother admitted to a home for the elderly. However, she and her husband cannot bear to do so.

Before she began losing her memory, Hong’s mother would tell her that only ungrateful children without filial piety would send their parents to nursing homes.

“I get very afraid when my mother and daughter both get sick, having me run back and forth like a shuttle. When I’m with one person, I’m afraid the other will be in trouble,” she said.

Sociologists call people like Hong, who have to take care of both elderly parents and raise children, the sandwich generation. It is a term coined by American sociologist Dorothy Miller, referring to a group of middle-aged people who have to take care of their aging parents and young children at the same time.

A 2013 study by the Pew Research Center based in the US found that nearly half the people aged 40-50 had parents over 65 years old as well as very young children. About 15 percent of the middle-aged people said they were financially supporting both their elderly parents and their children.

In a recent rapid VnExpress survey of more than 250 married people, 56.3 percent said that they were taking care of young children and elderly parents at the same time. Of these, 35.9 percent said they felt tired and under pressure all the time.

There are no official statistics for the sandwich generation in Vietnam, but, according to Dr Khuat Thu Hong, director of the Institute for Social Development Studies, this is a common and inevitable situation.

According to the 2019 census, the proportion of dependent population (under 15 and over 65) in Vietnam was about 45 percent. Meanwhile, the youth population (16 to 30) in the country has been decreasing year after year, and 60 plus group has kept rising.

“People’s life expectancy is increasing while young people are having fewer children. Meanwhile, many elderly people in Vietnam do not have pensions. So aging parents have to financially rely on their children,” Hong said.

A national report on Vietnam’s aging society says the proportion of elderly Vietnamese without pensions and benefits is 64.4 percent. It forecasts that after 2035, three out of every four people of working age will have to care for three family members, hindering opportunities for young people to accumulate and secure an income for their old age.

Without a timely intervention policy, Vietnam will be stuck in a cycle of young people having low savings, and elderly people getting older, poorer and sicker, the report said.

Lost opportunities

Not only do they have to put in a lot of effort, many people of the sandwich generation have to give up suitable jobs or higher positions when they prioritize taking care of their elderly parents and young children.

One VnExpress survey found 68 percent of the respondents saying they had to sacrifice their career and more than 34 percent saying they had to reduce their working hours and earn lower income because they have to spend time taking care of their loved ones.

Once, when Hong’s mother was hospitalized, she had to take half a month off. Just a month later, she texted her boss again to ask for another four days off because the house-help left for her hometown. With work interrupted often, Hong is no longer assigned important tasks by the company.

“There are times when I’m exhausted mentally and physically. I might still have opportunities to prove myself at work, but my mother doesn’t have much time left with us,” she said, sighing sadly.

The Vietnamese tradition of filial piety exerts a lot of pressure on the sandwich generation.

According to Associate Professor of Anthropology and Sociology Nguyen Duc Loc, director of the Social Life Research Institute, having to be a family pillar for others causes many people to have a mental crisis.

Two years ago, 25-year-old Vu Thi Thu from the central province of Thanh Hoa sent her one-year-old child back to the countryside and moved with her husband to Japan to set up a business.

Since both had poor childhoods, she and her husband tried not to let the past repeat for their child and to provide a comfortable life for their parents in their old age. In Vietnam, the couple earned little more than VND20 million, which was not enough for them to give comfortable life for both their parents and their child.

Once, when both Thu and her son fell sick at the same time, the family had to borrow money at high interest to pay the hospital fees.

Their financial struggles eased after she left for Japan, but Thu lived in torment.

Her son doesn’t miss his mother as much as he used to and refuses to have a video call with her at times. Sometimes, she hears from relatives that the neighbors think her child is an orphan.

Earlier this year, Thu received news that her father has terminal cancer. She emailed a request to leave work the same day and completed the procedures to leave Japan. But, as fate would have it, the Covid-19 pandemic thwarted her plan to return. For a month straight, she had to take medication for depression because of chronic insomnia and prolonged anxiety.

In early November, Thu took a flight back to Vietnam. Her father’s health had worsened, leaving him unable to eat or drink.

Meanwhile, Thu’s son does not want to sleep with his mother now.

“I am tormented often by my choice. I try to comfort myself, thinking that if I didn’t go to Japan, I would have had to sell my house now to take care of father,” Thu said.

Loc said it was likely that the pressures on sandwich generations will see couples have fewer children, leading to a faster population aging rate.

An aging population can be detrimental to the demographic structure and future socio-economic development. It increases pressure on the social security system for the elderly and reduces human resources, especially young workers.

Later, a child will likely have to face the problem of taking care of two parents and four grandparents at the same time.

Faced with such concerns about an aging population, a draft outline of the Law on Population by the health ministry is currently collecting feedback for submission to the government. It prioritizes the implementation of measures to encourage couples to have two children in areas with low fertility.

Accordingly, the government would grant couples a sum equal to the minimum wage of the particular region they live in upon having their first child, and twice that upon having the second.

The minimum wage currently ranges from VND3.07 million to VND4.42 million. Under the proposal, women in certain regions could receive up to VND8.84 million upon having their second child.

Couples who have two children would also be supported by the government in pre-school education and education at public primary schools. Their children can study in public middle schools for free.

Loc said that in order to reduce the burden on sandwich generations, the government should regulate public services like healthcare and education so that the poor have the opportunity to access these basic human rights, instead of leaving them in the hands of the profit-driven market economy.

It is also necessary to train people in financial planning skills, he said.

Hong said that the government should increase welfare, reduce health insurance fees or provide it free for the elderly, and reduce school fees for children of sandwich generation couples.

She said nursing homes are a solution to reduce the pressure of caring for the elderly. However, not everyone can afford to send their parents to such institutions. Even people with money might not be able to overcome the prejudices and taboo against sending loved ones to such institutions.

“In the future, nursing homes will be a potential market when they become the choice of many modern families,” she commented.

While experts advise sandwich generations to actively build a financial plan for their future to guarantee their living requirements are met, this is easier said than done.

Currently, Hong is worried about her mother and daughter, and wondering whether or not she should have a second child.

Thu plans to finish “arranging” the family’s business and move back to Hanoi to work. Even though she will earn less money, she would only need to spend half a day on the bus to visit her son and relatives in the countryside.

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