The sandwich generation: Adults caught in the middle caring for children, parents

For adults who belong to the sandwich generation, life can be rewarding yet challenging. They find themselves “sandwiched” between caring for their aging parents and young or grown children, often providing support while holding down full-time jobs.

Though being a multi-generational caregiver can be stressful at times, it can also bring families closer together and enhance the quality of life for loved ones.

Members of the sandwich generation were profiled in a study by the Pew Research Center, a Washington, D.C. fact tank. The study’s authors, Kim Parker and Eileen Patten, reported that nearly half (47 percent) of adults in their 40s and 50s have a parent age 65 or older and are either raising a young child or financially supporting a grown child age 18 or older. The report also found that:

  • 21 percent of African-Americans have a parent age 65 or older and a dependent child, compared to 24 percent of whites and 31 percent of Hispanics.
  • Men and women are equally likely to be members of the sandwich generation.
  • Married adults (36 percent) are more likely than unmarried adults (13 percent) to be sandwiched between their parents and their children.

“Adults who are part of the sandwich generation are pulled in many directions,” said Parker and Patten. “Not only do many provide care and financial support to their parents and their children, but nearly four-in-ten (38 percent) say both their grown children and their parents rely on them for emotional support.”

Because caregivers are often pulled in many directions, it’s important that they realize their limitations said Deborah Moore, assistant director of the Houston Health Department and director of the Harris County Area Agency on Aging (HCAAA).

“The number one thing a caregiver should keep in mind is that it is not possible to do it all alone without assistance from extended family, friends and the community,” Moore said.

“When this is not an option hiring someone to give him of her some relief from caring for a loved one is an option. The emotional and physical demands involved with caregiving can strain even the most resilient person. That’s why it’s so important to take advantage of the many resources and tools available to help the caregiver provide care for their loved one.”

Moore said that one program offered by HCAAA, the Care Connection Aging and Disability Resource Center (ADRC), provides information connecting caregivers to services needed to manage the challenges of caring for individuals of any age or disability.

“The ADRC offers vouchers to eligible individuals that allow caregivers to take time off (respite) from caregiving responsibilities and provides education to caregivers about the importance of taking care of their health and well-being,” she said.

Moore added that the most challenging part of being a caregiver is remaining patient and staying mentally tough.

“This means understanding that there will be difficult and frustrating times as well as setbacks in the caregiving journey,” she said. “The caregiver must be resourceful and a strong advocate for the loved one regardless of the barriers that arise.”

Being a caregiver also has its benefits.

“One of the most rewarding parts of being a caregiver is the closeness it brings to the family,” Moore said. “Whether a family comes together to assist in caregiving or one child is the main caregiver, you get to share a unique experience with an aging parent and know you are caring for them as they once did for you.”

Feeling sandwiched? Tips for caregivers

If you’re part of the sandwich generation, caring for yourself is as important as caring for your loved one.

“A person may be so focused on their loved one and not realize that his or her own health and well-being are suffering,” said the Houston Health Department’s Deborah Moore.

“As a caregiver, a person is more likely to experience symptoms of depression or anxiety. In addition, this person may not get enough sleep or physical activity, or eat a balanced diet which increases their risk of medical problems, such as heart disease and diabetes.”

Caregivers should also beware of stress.

“Understand that stress is a given when it comes to taking care of any individual, therefore learning to cope with it is important,” Moore said.

“Caregivers should make time to attend at least one class like the one we offer within our agency – Conversation with Caregivers – so they can identify triggers for stress and ideas on how to cope.”

Signs of stress might include feeling angry or sad, feeling like you don’t have enough time for yourself, sleeping or eating too much or too little or losing interest in things you used to enjoy.

Other caregiver tips include: 1. Get organized. Prioritize and plan each day. Get rid of clutter, whether it’s a junk drawer, messy closet or piles of old mail.

2. Learn to relax. Simple techniques include breathing exercises, such as slowly inhaling and exhaling; meditation, dedicating time each day to letting go of stressful thoughts, and visualization, mentally picturing a peaceful situation or place.

3. Find time for yourself. Schedule personal time when you plan your day. Savor a cup of tea or read a chapter in a novel. Enjoy your favorite hobby, get a manicure/pedicure or pray.

4. Become an educated caregiver. If your parent is living with a disease such as Alzheimer’s, learn all you can to better understand personality changes and behaviors that accompany it.

5. Set rules for grown children living at home.

· Agree on an amount your children can pay for room and board to help them be financially responsible.

· If your child is unemployed, insist that they actively seek work and don’t put yourself in a financial bind to help them out.

· Make sure they respect your space. It may be okay for them to have occasional visits from friends but your place is not a frat house.

· If you disapprove of smoking or drinking don’t let them do it at home. The same goes for keeping a messy room or letting dirty laundry pile up.

· Set a realistic deadline for your child to leave home and help him or her achieve it.

Additional Sources: AARP, Alzheimer’s Association, caring.com, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services