Whether they know it or not, many Baby Boomers belong to the “sandwich generation.” This doesn’t refer to what they eat for lunch. It’s about their situation, sandwiched between caring for their children and their parents at the same time. To be sure, these caregivers deal with a variety of stresses, but they enjoy unique satisfaction as well.
These busy people aren’t a small group—there are more than 50 million sandwich caregivers in the U.S. About 70 percent of them are between 41 and 59 years of age and 20 percent are under 40. According to the Pew Research Center, sandwich caregivers are as likely to be men as women.
They all have one thing in common: They’re busy caring for family members from dusk till dawn.
“When someone must care for themselves, their children and aging parents at the same time, it becomes difficult to juggle everything at once,” says Kristine Bertini, Psy.D., a psychologist at the University of Southern Maine and author of Strength for the Sandwich Generation: Help to Thrive While Simultaneously Caring for Our Kids and Our Aging Parents. “One example is the situation that a sandwich caregiver faces in the morning. They have to get children ready for school, give attention to their husband or wife, and care for parents living with them. It’s a very demanding life.”
Those demands don’t just cause physical fatigue. There is also emotional stress. “These caregivers, most of whom are in their 40s and 50s, previously thought that at that age, they’d have their lives to themselves,” says H. Michael Zal, psychiatrist and author of The Sandwich Generation: Caught Between Growing Children and Aging Parents. “But suddenly they find that their kids still need them, but in different ways than before, and their aging parents ask them for help with their daily lives, even with things like managing their finances. These caregivers can also be faced with an additional financial burden. They can feel ‘stuck’ in this situation and resentful because of it.”
If the all-consuming pressures of caregiving aren’t recognized and managed, sandwich caregivers can run into marital conflicts, depression, poor performance on their jobs, strained relationships with family members, isolation from friends and little time for social activities.
Reasons for Hope
But it’s far from a hopeless situation. With the right combination of insight, planning and communication, a sandwich caregiver’s hectic life can be made more manageable. Here are some tips from the experts:
- Don’t Try to Please Everyone—“Don’t hold onto the notion that you can please everyone, because the reality is that you can’t,” says Sandra Haymon, Ph.D., psychologist and author of Baby Boomers—Sandwiched Between Retirement & Caregiving. “You don’t need other people’s approval of the things you’re doing, and there isn’t one right way to do them. Everyone’s situation is unique, and the caregiver usually knows what is best for their family.”
- Get Professional Help—Don’t try to perform this juggling act on your own. Contact a local social worker, the Area Agency on Aging or U.S. Health and Human Services (www.longtermcare.gov) for strategies for caring for children and senior parents at the same time. Also, team with a financial planner to learn how to manage higher expenses.
- Pace Yourself—“The biggest mistake caregivers make is seeing the role as a 100-yard dash instead of a marathon,” says Haymon. “Caring for children and aging loved ones can last for years, even decades. Caregivers need to pace themselves—they have to realize there is only so much they can do in a day—or they won’t make it to the finish line with their health and relationships intact.”
- Hold Family Meetings—Scheduling time for the entire family to communicate with each other is very important. The family members must understand their responsibilities and have a chance to discuss their needs and the best ways to address them. These meetings aren’t a time for criticism; everyone must feel free to say exactly what is on their mind.
- Establish Routines— “By following routines for meal times, activity periods, bed times and chores, everyone knows what is expected of them and doing things together every day strengthens bonds within the family,” says Bertini. “Without this kind of structure in place, a busy day becomes even more hectic and stressful.”
- Take Care of Yourself—
Many sandwich caregivers are so focused on doing good things for others that they don’t do good things for themselves. “Our emotional and spiritual well-being is directly connected to our physical health,” says Haymon. “Take care of yourself physically by exercising, maintaining a healthy diet and scheduling down time. Stay connected with family and friends. Practice relaxation techniques. Do things that make you happy. Don’t let the role of caregiver consume you. You have many other roles to play in life—pay attention to and enjoy those roles.”
The role of sandwich caregiver is relentlessly demanding, but it can also be extremely rewarding. In addition to giving their children valuable family experiences, many sandwich caregivers benefit from the opportunity to care for parents who, much earlier in life, cared for them.
“In this situation, elderly family members are dependent on their children, so sandwich caregivers can rebuild relationships with their parents and experience deeper emotional intimacy with them,” says Bertini. “A sandwich caregiver’s parents can be more willing to express their emotions and allow close relationships to flourish. Also, involving grandchildren in caring for their grandparents not only distributes the workload, it develops a multigenerational bond in the family that can be profound, uplifting and enduring.”