Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How Adult Children of the Sandwich Generation Cope With Gray Divorce

Divorce piles on when sandwiched between parents and kids.

Key points

  • Adult children whose parents get divorced can wind up dealing with an emotionally exhausting legal process.
  • To make your older parents’ divorce as painless as possible, an understanding of their assets is crucial.
  • Consider working with a mediator specializing in elder law to help facilitate family communications.

In 2013, the New York Times published an article announcing the “gray divorce revolution,” citing research that showed divorce rates among individuals 50 and older had doubled since 1990 despite stabilizing for the general population. The article opined on some of the underlying factors contributing to 50-plus divorces, like extended life expectancies and increased expectations for marriage. Social historian and family history professor Stephanie Coontz, who is among those quoted in the article, sagely predicted that the number of gray divorces would not decrease over time.

Coontz’s prediction was right. A simple Google search demonstrates that “gray divorces” are still a hot-button topic in articles and advice columns over a decade later—especially this month, as the first-ever Golden Bachelor couple announced their divorce just three months after their televised wedding. Gray Divorce even has a Wikipedia page that further defines “silver splitters”—couples over 65 years old who divorce. The rate of divorce for "silver splitters" has tripled since 1990.

My experience as a matrimonial attorney tracks the statistics, with one addition: since 2020, divorces for people well into their 70s and 80s are also occurring more frequently. And while there is some research on the economic consequences of a gray divorce, there is little research on the impact of the “sandwich generation”—middle-aged adults caring for aging parents while also caring for their own children—whose parents are not only aging but are also divorcing.

How Gray Divorce Impacts Adult Children of the “Sandwich Generation”

Over the last five years, I have represented a surprising number of people between the ages of 70 and 90 in their divorces. Each client had adult children who were involved with caring for their aging parent(s) despite being busy with their own lives. On top of their regular responsibilities, the adult children were often forced to help the parents navigate their divorce, which placed undue stress and burden on them. They are called upon frequently for tasks including helping their parents find lawyers, appear in court, and pull together years’ worth of financial records. This is time-consuming and emotionally exhausting for anyone, much less people busy with their own children and jobs. Further, while a divorce can create significant tension in any family, “gray divorces” can upend entire family systems when the couple are not just parents, but grandparents. Imagine beloved elders who may no longer tolerate one another’s company at their grandchild’s middle school play or high school football game.

How to Make Gray Divorce Manageable for the Whole Family

First, if the divorcing couple is financially secure enough for their respective retirements, a resolution of their divorce may turn on a savvy estate plan. In one such matter I was involved with, the parents decided to each gift a significant interest in the valuable marital residence to their adult child as part of both their respective estate plans and their divorce agreement. Their child was represented by independent counsel, and the matter required trust and estate and real estate counsel on top of the aging parents’ matrimonial attorneys—but the integration of their divorce settlement and their estate plans met everyone’s goals and reduced the family’s tensions. This resolution requires good financial planning and the willingness of aging parents to part with assets before they were perhaps ready to do so, but, as in any divorce, there are tradeoffs.

Second, in a blended family, everyone should try to stop themselves from retreating to their respective parent’s corner. If the divorcing parents’ children can keep the sibling lines of communication open, then no one feels left out of decisions or unnecessarily protective of their parent. It requires an extensive amount of time and patience—neither of which the sandwich generation has—to maturely manage the dynamics of a blended family whose elderly parents are divorcing. To avoid familial anguish that will outlive their parents, siblings should consider working with a mediator familiar with elder law and family law or a mental health professional familiar with geriatric and financial issues who can help facilitate family communications. If it works well, the adult children may be able to help their parents reach a fair resolution of their divorce with the least amount of emotional and financial cost.

Finally, the most effective way to help 70- to 80-year-old parents in a divorce is to get a handle on their financial circumstances and estate plans as early as possible. When the adult children understand the assets, liabilities, savings, and estate plans of their elderly parents, they can constructively support the divorce process with the least amount of tension and time.

More from Sophie Jacobi-Parisi J.D., M.S.W.
More from Psychology Today
More from Sophie Jacobi-Parisi J.D., M.S.W.
More from Psychology Today