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It's hard enough to pay your bills and save for retirement, especially during an economic downturn. But it's even tougher when you have to juggle responsibilities, providing for your own financial needs and lending a helping hand to your elderly parents or grown children -- or both.

Nearly half of Americans 55 and older say they expect to provide support for aging relatives and adult children, according to the Retirement Re-Set study by SunAmerica Financial Group and Age Wave, a research group that tracks the financial and cultural impact of the graying of America. "Family assistance has become the new retirement wild card," says Age Wave founder Ken Dychtwald.

A sour economy has exacerbated the squeeze on the "sandwich generation." Seniors are struggling to cope with rising medical and long-term-care expenses just as their investment portfolios and home values are shrinking, and their middle-aged children sometimes need to pitch in. Those same children, who breathed a sigh of relief when the college tuition bills for their own offspring finally ended, may also be fielding requests for help from the kids -- or even a boomerang brood on their doorstep.

It's hard to say no, and most people don't. But that decision may have long-term implications. Even if you don't have to raid your retirement accounts, cutting back on your retirement-plan contributions to help family members translates into a smaller nest egg.

Or maybe it's your time, rather than your money, that's in demand. Although it might seem more cost-effective to take time off from work to care for a relative rather than to pay someone else to do it, the long-term cost can be high. The average worker who takes time off to provide care for an aging parent sacrifices more than $300,000 in lost wages and benefits over a lifetime, says Sandra Timmermann, a gerontologist and director of the MetLife Mature Market Institute.

"You lose the accumulation of the money you could earn, you lose your 401k match, you lose your benefits and health insurance, and you may not be able to find a job again when you want to get back into the workforce," she says.

Call in the pros

Roger Bacharach, 65, knows about the sandwich squeeze firsthand. A professional artist from Lancaster, Pa., Bacharach has spent nearly five decades balancing his love of art with the financial realities of raising a family. "My father always encouraged me to have a dependable source of income," says Bacharach, who supplemented his painting sales with art-related jobs, such as medical illustrator, art teacher and gallery and art-supply-store owner. He and his wife, Trudie, an emergency-room doctor, faithfully squirreled away money to pay for college for their two children and to fund their own retirement. But just as they were getting ready to relax and enjoy retirement, life took an unexpected turn.

Roger's parents, Lewis and Mary Rae, had been living in Arizona for more than 30 years. But after Roger's mother began showing signs of Alzheimer's in her early 90s, Roger talked to his parents about moving to Pennsylvania to be closer to him and his brother. By the time his parents relocated three years later, his mother had suffered a stroke. She went to a nursing home for care; his father moved to an assisted-living facility nearby. The elder Bacharachs had saved enough money to pay their long-term-care expenses for a while, but at more than $12,000 per month, their money wouldn't last forever.

Roger and his father assembled a team of financial experts, including an accountant, an estate planner, a bank manager and Roger's longtime financial planner. "We got together a good team to help prepare for whatever was coming down the pike," says Roger. They set up his father's investments so their nursing-home and assisted-living bills would be paid for mostly from stock dividends and laddered certificates of deposit. They also set up a trust to minimize estate taxes.

Meanwhile, Roger and his father worked together to see where they could cut costs. They scrutinized the itemized nursing-home bills for errors, and they reduced costs by more than $1,000 per month by purchasing some of his mother's personal supplies on their own rather than paying the facility's marked-up prices. Lewis, a former pawnbroker who could add five columns of figures in his head without a calculator, enjoyed the accounting efforts, which kept his mind nimble and saved him money.

Mary Rae died at age 100 in early 2011, but Roger and his father, now 97, still go over his finances with a fine-toothed comb. Seeing how much his parents spent on their combined nursing-home and assisted-living bills prompted Roger and Trudie to buy long-term-care insurance for themselves.

Rick Rodgers, the Bacharachs' financial planner, says that when he meets with new clients, one of the first things he brings up is whether they think they'll eventually have to help their parents financially. "We're siphoning off funds that would be used for our retirement to take care of our parents," he says. "It's a trade-off." And working around that trade-off is a key piece of his clients' financial plans.

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