The Sandwich Generation Needs Balance
At least 11 million Americans, or more than one in 10 American parents, are what’s known as “sandwich generation caregivers” – people who are simultaneously raising children and providing unpaid care for an ageing parent or other relative. This type of intergenerational support brings with it unique stresses, as well as unique opportunities for family bonding and connection. Read on to learn more about sandwich generation caregiving and how to balance more successfully caring for those close to you while also caring for yourself!
Sandwich generation by the numbers
The average sandwich generation caregiver is around 41 years old, with most caregivers falling into the Gen X and millennial age groups. Sandwich generation caregivers also tend to be more ethnically diverse and newer to adult caregiving than caregivers who do not have children at home.
Sandwich generation caregivers report spending an average of 24 hours a week caring for their loved ones (both children and adults). This is in addition to their work responsibilities – over half of sandwich generation caregivers are also at the peak of their working years.
Sandwich generation caregivers often form part of a care network, with 53 percent reporting receiving help from other unpaid caregivers and 26 percent reporting hiring a home health aide, housekeeper, or other paid support within the last twelve months. Thirteen percent of sandwich generation caregivers act as the primary unpaid caregivers.
The most common tasks sandwich generation caregivers help with are transportation, housework, meal preparation, and advocating with medical professionals and other service providers. While fewer assist with more complex medical or nursing tasks, these activities remain a commonly reported source of concern and stress. Around one-third of sandwich generation caregivers report experiencing high levels of emotional stress, while around one-fifth report high levels of financial and/or physical stress.
Challenges – and Opportunities
The stresses and responsibilities faced by sandwich generation caregivers can be daunting. Among the most reported stressors are a lack of personal time, increased family conflict, complex emotions that can arise when faced with the need to parent a parent, feelings of failure or inadequacy, lack of workplace benefits, and difficulty finding affordable help and support services.
More than half of sandwich generation caregivers who also work outside the home report that their caregiving responsibilities have impacted their work life. These impacts include shifting schedules (needing to go in late or leave early), taking time off, and taking a leave of absence.
Recognizing these challenges and taking steps as a society to help address them through improved childcare and elder care, medical and family leave policies, flexible workplace policies and benefits, caregiver tax credits and other financial policies, and improved education and training, are crucial in supporting both sandwich generation caregivers themselves and our communities.
Despite the many challenges and stresses, however, sandwich generation caregiving can provide some important benefits for those involved as well! Sandwich generation caregiving creates stronger, more meaningful intergenerational bonds and can help bridge the generational gap between children, parents, and grandparents. Caregivers may feel a sense of relief or confidence from their ability to advocate for their older loved ones and ensure they are being cared for with love and respect; caregivers can also experience increased feelings of joy, gratitude, and connection from the time spent with loved ones. Children of sandwich generation caregivers also benefit from seeing loving, respectful caregiving modeled by their parents and participating in appropriate caregiving activities. This can set the stage for future generations who value close family relationships and help with children’s cognitive and emotional development.
While caregiving brings some beautiful opportunities for family connection, there is no denying that sandwich generation caregivers are under a lot of pressure. If you fall into this group, here are a few tips to help you take care of your own wellbeing and avoid burnout!
- Remember you’re not alone. As noted previously, as many as 11 million Americans are in the same boat as you, acting as caregiver to a parent or other adult relative while also raising their children. And more than half of those caretakers are also growing and excelling in their careers. With more and more Americans finding themselves in an intergenerational care situation, the opportunity to connect with other caregivers and the resources and information available continues to grow.
- Organize and automate. Maintaining important information – social security numbers, insurance and Medicare information, medical information and medication lists, legal documents and advance directives, doctor and childcare provider contact numbers, and family schedules – in one place can help make caregivers’ lives a little bit easier and more efficient. Creating a master file (ideally both digital and physical) with this critical information can also help additional caretakers step in seamlessly to give you a break! You can also take advantage of increasing automation options, such as scheduling deliveries from your pharmacy for medication refills, using meal planning services, setting up automatic payments for home health aides, housekeepers, or childcare providers.
- Ask for help – and be specific! One of the most important things for sandwich generation caregivers to remember is that you don’t have to do it all alone. Don’t be afraid to ask your family and friends for support and assistance! Experts also recommend getting specific in your requests. Oftentimes, our loved ones want to help us but may not know where to start. You can use the Notes app on your phone to write down tasks you wish you had help with – things like preparing dinner, taking care of school drop-off, doing a load of laundry, or taking your loved one to an appointment. Then when someone asks what they can do for you, you can refer to your list and provide them with some actionable ideas. You can even send out a monthly email to local family members or friends who have offered help, letting them know where you could use help in the upcoming month and asking them to sign up for specific activities.
- Build a support network. In addition to our family and friends, we all need people in our lives who really understand what we are going through. Try to connect with other caregivers through support groups, often put together by therapists’ or doctors’ offices. Ask around at your loved one’s appointments or look online for a local group. You can also contact your EAP, Workplace Solutions, for assistance with finding and compiling a list of local support groups or other helpful resources. And speaking of therapists – consider talking with a professional about the stresses you are facing to help get in front of them and manage your own mental health!
- Acknowledge your family’s unique cultural needs and expectations. When it comes to things like child-rearing and caring for the older generation, different cultures and families have different norms and expectations. For some, entering a sandwich caregiving situation may be a carefully weighed choice; for others, it may just be what is done, without question. Both scenarios can bring with them feelings of resentment, bitterness, confusion, or ambivalence. Try to acknowledge and accept these feelings non-judgmentally and, if possible, connect with people with similar cultural or family views.
- Take breaks. Even when we have people depending on us, none of us can be “on” 24 hours a day. It’s crucial for caregivers to take frequent, regularly timed breaks, both physical and mental. Prioritize small chunks of time to do things you truly enjoy, things that help keep you in the present moment and forget about your responsibilities for a few minutes. This could be going for a run or a walk, taking an extra-long shower, enjoying a cup of coffee at your favorite coffee shop instead of getting it to go, watching an episode of your favorite show by yourself, or even just sitting in silence with your bedroom door closed for a few minutes. Making sure you take breaks for yourself to breathe, feel your emotions, and reconnect to who you are outside of your caregiving roles will help you avoid burnout and engage in your life and with your loved ones with more presence and joy.