How to Take Care of Yourself as a Sandwich Generation Caregiver

Juggling the care of your children and an aging loved one calls for a dose of help.

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- Posted on Aug 12, 2020

An aging mother having a conversation with her caregiver daughter.

Branka Primetica, MSW, is the BRI Care Consultation™ Program Manager at Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging

Consider whether this has a familiar ring: You’ve got a work assignment due in the morning, and you need two or three more hours to finish it. All day long, you try to get to it, but your mom has a medical appointment she can’t miss and you need to drive her there and consult with the doctor. One of your children comes down with a cold and the other two need help with schoolwork. When you finally do sit down to your computer in the afternoon, you’re concerned about everyone. Then you get a follow-up call from your mom’s doctor and it breaks your train of thought. By then, dinner has to be made and cleaned up. Your assignment will have to wait until tonight—after you check on your mom and get the kids settled down—and before you sleep.  

If this sounds anything like your life, you’re a member of the “sandwich generation.” The term was coined in the early 1980s to refer to the population of caregivers who simultaneously care for their children and their aging parents, in-laws or other family members. They shoulder numerous responsibilities, including jobs, childcare, household chores and care tasks for their older loved ones. If you are a member of this generation, you can easily find yourself feeling overwhelmed as your responsibilities pile on, and it may feel like there  are never  enough hours in the day to handle it all.

The Covid-19 pandemic has made your demands even more challenging, as you may have to instruct your children at home while you keep up with your job and household tasks. Adding to your stress, you may also have to do more distant caregiving because of social distancing recommendations if your older loved one lives in a separate household, and particularly if he or she has compromised immunity.

The face of the “sandwich generation”

According to 2013 Pew Research Center data, the “sandwich generation” is:

  • 71 percent ages 40-59
  • 19 percent younger than 40
  • 10 percent age 60 and older
  • 21 percent African American
  • 24 percent Caucasian
  • 31 percent Hispanic

According to AARP, women in “Generation X,” those born between 1965 and 1980, have unique challenges, in that more women of that generation are working in addition to trying to manage their own lives compared to their predecessors. Parents are also living longer and have more chronic health conditions that require close monitoring in terms of treatment and care.

Millennials are quickly approaching the “sandwich generation” as they raise children and begin to age alongside their parents. In contrast to the categories “Generation X” and “Millennials,” members of the “sandwich generation” are not defined by age group, but rather by shared circumstances.

Making time for yourself as a “sandwich generation” caregiver

If you are handling the care of an aging loved one while raising your children (and possibly holding down a job as well), it’s important that you find ways to give yourself a break. “Sandwich generation” caregivers frequently face more challenges than their non-caregiving peers – primarily related to caregiving, financial and emotional stressors. While the experience can be very rewarding, it can also be exhausting. So you need to protect your well-being.

Juggling multiple tasks, particularly those that are unplanned, can exact a toll on your emotional and physical health. A good first step is to shut your eyes and envision something you’d like to do for yourself  during the day, even if it’s only for 15-20 minutes. It could be going for a walk or doing a few yoga stretches. Perhaps it’s hitting the drive-through to enjoy your favorite iced drink or dessert. It might be carving out some time to phone a friend or family member for a catch-up.

Setting aside time for yourself to unwind and energize helps to rejuvenate you for visits with your older loved one and to spend quality time with your children and other family members. You may find it easier as a result to slow down and engage in a pleasant conversation with them, which can allow you to build positive memories. Maybe you’ll even feel like revisiting something you and your parent used to love to do together.

But in order to get these stress-relieving breaks, you may need help. To do so, explore your informal and formal support networks. Remember that you don’t have to do it all by yourself. You may be surprised by how many people are waiting to pitch in. Allow yourself to delegate.

Draw up a list of what you do on a daily, weekly or monthly basis related to caring for your older loved one and children, as well as keeping the household in shape. Make a separate list of tasks someone else might be able to handle, even if it’s not on a regular basis. Fight the impulse to say, “It’s easier for me to do it.” Remember to pick your battles. “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Realize it’s okay to compromise. Opening the door to support can lead to good things you’d never have anticipated.

If you find it difficult to ask for support, or have questions about caregiving, it’s important that you seek professional help. There are local as well as national programs that can provide coaching to families and guidance with caregiving issues and future care planning. Explore the coaching service offered at Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging, WeCare… Because You Do, for caregiving families. In addition, the Family Caregiver Alliance provides caregiver information and support, services and advocacy, while the Eldercare Locator can help you access services near you.

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