Is Your Nest Too Full?

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

While many middle-age couples are dealing with empty-nest syndrome, others have the opposite problem: Their elderly parents and their children live at home, called full-nest syndrome.

By John Casey
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

As many of us reach middle age, we're faced with a double burden: caring for young children and aging parents at the same time. It makes for a serious bind. Add to that the stress of working full time and many in this generation-between-generations, also known as the "sandwich generation," are experiencing the stress of living an overfilled life.

"Both children and aging parents need paternal or maternal attention, they both need parenting," says Daphne Stevens, PhD, a psychotherapist in private practice in Macon, Ga. "That's what people in the 'sandwich generation' are doing, parenting old and young. And that is no easy task. It's a marathon, not a sprint."

More than 25% of the adult population provided care for a chronically ill, disabled, or aged family member or friend in 1999, according to estimates from the National Family Caregivers Association. Making that task vastly more difficult is the fact that many of the kids being taken care of by sandwich generation people are themselves adults. Figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show an 85% increase in the numbers of 25- to 34-year-olds living at home between 1980 and 1989. And like all social phenomenon, this one has a name, too: boomerang generation.

Full-Nest Syndrome

This is the opposite of the so-called empty-nest syndrome: It's the full-nest syndrome, a kind of return to the multigenerational living of old. But that type of living was born of necessity.

"A lot of families lived that way in the past because they had to, not because they wanted to," says Anna Beth Benningfield, PhD, clinical director of the Family Therapy Program at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. "In other cultures, that is the way people live. Even in Europe, they think we're crazy for expecting 18-year olds to live on their own."

Even though multigenerational living is difficult for many Americans, Benningfield says the situation can work.

"The biggest mistake people make is not addressing issues up front," says Benningfield. "You need regular family meetings, just like you have in a business, to discuss issues as they arise rather than letting resentments simmer until they blow up."

Everyone involved needs to have clearly expressed expectations about the arrangement or it simply won't work, says Benningfield, who also is president of American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy.

Along with communication, cooperation is vital.

"Everyone needs to be helping out in whatever ways they can so that just a few people in the family don't end up carrying all the weight, says Stevens, who wrote about the caregiving bind in her book, Watercolor Bedroom: Creating A Soulful Midlife. "There have to be regular and effective ways for the people in the middle to turn over some of the responsibility to others."

One of the major problems is that resentment can creep up.

"A married couple who thought they were going to be footloose to travel and enjoy their retirement can find themselves caring for elderly parents and living with their adult children," says Benningfield. "It's important that everyone be open about their expectations so that no one feels like their needs -- be that time away from caregiving or help around the house -- are not being taken seriously."

3 Tips for Full-Nest Living

Multigenerational life has many advantages, especially for the old and young. Here are some ideas to help smooth out the bumps.

1. Care for Yourself

You can't take good care of other people if you are tired and irritable. Caring for yourself can mean accepting help when it is offered or making sure you get to a therapist if your role in the family makes you feel depressed and angry.

"Look around your community to find out what's available before you start feeling like things are too much," says Benningfield. "There are mothers'-day-off programs or drop-off eldercare or respite care. Find other people in the same situation and swap days off. Make a list of people who can help when things get overwhelming."

2. Set Rules

The more everyone is aware of his or her responsibilities around the house, the better. Make a list of all the chores that need to be done, including making meals and shopping, and assign them to individuals.

"I suggest that any plan that people work out should be reassessed every 60 days," says Benningfield. "That way no one feels trapped in assignments or regular chores they don't like or feel they can't handle."

3. Weekly Family Meetings

One way to make sure everyone has a chance to expressing their views about the living situation is through family meetings. Attendance should be mandatory.

"If families can talk about the things that they see as working or not working and figure out where the challenges are, then they stand a good chance to resolving differences quickly," says Benningfield. "Try to view children and parents living with you as an asset, a chance to get to know your family in a way you haven't known them before."

Published May 17, 2004.

John Casey is a freelance writer in New York City.

SOURCES: Anna Beth Benningfield, PhD, psychologist; clinical director, Family Therapy program, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University; president, American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. Daphne Stevens, PhD, psychotherapist and clinical social worker; author, Watercolor Bedroom: Creating a Soulful Midlife. American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. U.S. Census. National Family Caregivers Association.

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