In the 1980s, a social worker by the name of Dorothy Miller came up with the term “sandwich generation.” At the time, she used it to describe women in their 30s and 40s tasked with caring both for children at home and their aging parents. They were “sandwiched” between the two.
The idea – and the term – caught on. Today, “sandwich generation” is used more broadly to describe both men and women who have dual caregiver roles over both their parents and children.
According to a Pew Research Center survey, nearly half (47 percent) of adults in their 40s and 50s can be defined as within this sandwich generation – having a parent age 65 or older, while also raising either a young child or financially supporting a grown child (age 18 or older).
Equally revealing, the survey notes, “about 1 in 7 middle-aged adults (15 percent) is providing financial support to both an aging parent and a child.”
The stats only hint at the toll placed on those within the sandwich generation: They’re pressed between responsibilities that at times feel understandably overwhelming. After all, it’s not just the financial burdens they’re facing, but also emotional and physical stress.
If you’re dealing with the strain of being a dual caregiver in the sandwich generation, there are steps you can take to alleviate some of the stress.
And while there’s no way to eliminate all of challenges that are likely to come your way, by having a better understanding of how to take care of your own needs, you’ll be better able to handle the needs of those around you.
Talk, talk and talk some more
Having regular conversations with those within your support network – and with yourself – are critical.
“The most important thing you can do is to really sit down and have a conversation with yourself about what you can and can’t handle,” explains Jarrette S. Wright-Booker, a licensed professional counselor in Detroit. “I don’t know that we’re always really honest with ourselves, which can lead to taking on too much and then becoming burnt out.”
Wright-Booker notes that this isn’t a one-time conversation, but an ongoing check-in that you should have with yourself.
The next step, then, is to talk to those around you involved in your aging parents’ care, such as your spouse and children, along with your siblings. Keep the lines of communication open to regularly discuss your aging parents’ needs and how the group can help handle them, together.
You might also consider seeking out an additional sandwich generation support network – whether that’s through a community or religious group, or a health care provider.
“I talk to caregivers a lot,” says Shawn Bennis, a registered nurse and the C.A.R.E. program coordinator at Henry Ford Health System. “That’s often all they need is a listening ear – they tell me their story and tell me what’s going on. They’re looking to confide in someone they can trust who’s non-judgmental, just listen and not try to fix their problem.”
She points out that Henry Ford offers a variety of caregiver support groups, including an innovative program that involves art therapy and a Facebook support group, as well.
Allow yourself to grieve
“Growing up, we kind of see our parents as super people, but as adult children take on the role of caregiver, it’s a process to accept that new role and to mourn the parent that was,” explains Wright-Booker. “The person that you used to go to for help and support is now coming to you, and that can be a real struggle for everyone.”
Wright-Booker describes this as reverse parenting – where the child gradually assumes roles the aging parent once had. That role reversal, which is a normal part of the sandwich generation transition, can create challenges and strong emotions.
For the aging parents, there’s a loss of identity and independence. And for the adult child, a recognition that the people you used to count on for support are now looking to you for help – and they may not always be open to accept the guidance you’re offering them.
Be intentional about self-care
It may sound simple, but when you’re managing the care for both your aging parents and your children at home, you may neglect your own needs.
Even simple tasks, like making sure you’re eating regularly and getting exercise, can fall to the bottom of the to-do list. Yet tending to your own needs can help you feel prepared to handle those of others.
“You need to be compassionate with yourself. Honor yourself,” Wright-Booker says. “People in general have the tendency to put their own needs on the back burner.”
She suggests instead that you prioritize what you need to do to stay emotionally and physically healthy.
For many sandwich generation caregivers, letting others serve you can be difficult. However, you may find your friends and neighbors don’t mind pitching in – and may even appreciate the opportunity to lighten some of your burdens.
For example, you might see if a neighbor can take over part of carpool duties for you, or perhaps a friend might take you out for lunch or dinner on occasion, just to catch up and chat.
Then again, your partner and children at home can also be a source of strength and support. “Make sure that you’re able to identify gaps in your schedule and then have it be a family endeavor to fill those gaps,” says Wright-Booker.
“You may be surprised to see how much your children can help and look forward to helping. Children are very willing to be involved in that process and they learn so much from watching their parents care for their parents.”
Acknowledge guilt, but don’t wallow in it
“Caregivers need to be given permission to feel overwhelmed and to have bad days,” says Bennis, who’s also the president of the iCare4U Employee Resource Group at Henry Ford Health System.
Along with being overwhelmed, you’re likely to encounter times when you feel guilty too for all the things you think you could be doing better to care for either your aging parents, your children or even yourself.
These thoughts can be challenging to deal with. “You need to allow yourself to feel guilty. Those are normal feelings,” Wright-Booker says. “You may know you’re doing everything you can and still feel like that’s not enough. Once again I can’t stress the importance of compassion enough – compassion is underrated.”
She encourages sandwich generation caregivers to evaluate these feelings internally and also to reach out to your support network, too, to navigate these thoughts and emotions.
“There’s a good quote I like to use, ‘Your mind is like a bad neighborhood; don’t go there alone.’ Sometimes, we’re our own worst critic, so it helps to have others to talk to.”
Wright-Booker also points out that journaling can be a helpful way to sort out your feelings.
Get finances in order
Talking about money tends to be a taboo topic even in the best of circumstances. But when your aging parents are facing various choices with their care, it can help alleviate some of your anxiety if you know what their financial situation is and how their future plans fit into the picture.
Bennis points out as part of their caregiver support group, there is a lawyer that comes in to teach a session about various financial considerations and estate planning.
In general, however, Bennis says, “Talk to your parents about their goals and what they want for their future.”
For example, are they OK with going into an assisted living center or a nursing home? Are they planning on moving in with you when staying in their own home becomes too difficult? Do they have finances to support these goals?
Knowing what your aging parents have in mind – long before it comes to those more challenging conversations – can help make the situation a little easier for everyone in your sandwich generation family.