The Sandwich Generation

“Don’t tell your mom…. but I took the car out today.” How often over the years have these words been said by excited and perhaps unruly teenagers, anxious to feel the freedom of driving alone on the open road? Many many times over the decades, I am sure. Perhaps you even said these words or snuck the car out in your teenage years. The first time I heard these words were not from an older sibling or cousin but from my 81-year-old Grandma Barr, who everyone affectionately called Granny B.

Granny B and Grandpa had retired to Florida when I was an infant. We loved vacationing with them at their retirement condo over the summers. During the holidays they would come and spend time with us. On one holiday visit, when I was about sixteen years old and my brother thirteen years old, Grandpa suffered a massive stroke that left him in full-time nursing home care. Granny B made the very hard choice to sell her condo and move in with us to be close to Grandpa. Granny B lived with my mom and my brother for nearly 10 years, all the way through our middle and high school years. We belong to what has come to be known as the Sandwich Generation.

The Sandwich Generation is defined as a subset of family caregivers who are taking care of both an adult loved one and a child. The sandwich generation is made up of adults (usually between 40-59 years old) that find themselves “sandwiched” in between providing care for aging parents who may be ill or needing increased assistance with activities of daily living, financial or health care support AND the obligation to provide physical, emotional and financial support of their children. In 2022 researchers from University of Michigan estimate about 2.5 million people (about twice the population of Hawaii) find themselves in this unique position.

Raising children is hard. Caring for an aging family member is also hard. Doing both simultaneously…. triple hard. There are emotional, logistical and financial considerations. Below are some tips and tricks for caregivers who find themselves “sandwiched” right in the middle of it all.

  1. Build a community. We have all heard it takes a village to raise a child. What seems less culturally accepted is it also takes a village to help our older loved ones navigate the aging journey. Reaching out to friends, family, faith community, etc. is a great way to grow your village. Partner with parents in your kids’ extracurricular groups for ride share and drop off. Reach out to a care navigator or patient advocate to help line up additional resources for your elderly loved one. Most communities are rich with resources to help minimize caregiver stress and burnout if you know where to look.
  2. Count on others– My mom was Super Women. She navigated a high stress career, raising my brother and I while managing my grandmother’s unique care needs including doctors appointments. With all of this going on it is easy to start to feel like you HAVE to do it all. You don’t!! Lean on older children for making lunches, dusting, etc. Also provide tasks to your older adult. Granny B was given some responsibilities (putting light weight dishes and silverware away from the dishwasher, folding laundry, etc.). It empowered Granny B and made her feel like a contributing member of the family. Lean on others where you can and if someone offers to run errands or make a meal…take them up on the offer.
  3. Do not underestimate the power of self-care. Make sure as a caregiver you are making time for yourself. Even an hour of quiet meditation, yoga, or an outdoor walk can rejuvenate your spirit. Catch that time when you can. Cliché as it is- you cannot pour from an empty cup.
  4. Stay organized. This takes time and energy but knowing what is ahead always makes the path easier. Consider a family calendar and weekly menu and discuss each Sunday evening before the week gets started. Assign family members top priorities and responsibilities for the week.
  5. Ditch the idea of perfection! You have a perfect plan laid out…. then a sick kiddo, or a surprise doctor’s appointment for your older loved one, an urgent work project comes out of nowhere… ditch the idea of perfection. Abandon it. Everyone will survive without three homecooked meals a day, a spot-free house and a manicured lawn. Do not strive for perfection. You have enough on your plate. Coming to grips with good enough is just that…good enough can eliminate some stress and anxiety. Plans will change, dinner will be fast food, the homework will not make it into the backpack. It’s fine! It might be helpful to remind yourself that in 3-5 years the missing homework will not matter. In the moment this “mis step” or less than perfect situation may feel like the end of the world, but it is not, and chances are by the end of the week it will not have mattered at all.
  6. Remember to enjoy it. Time is fleeting and even though it is hard or even seems impossible at times- take pictures, pause and reflect on the simple and happy moments. Our family would occasionally escape to the local pizza joint on a Friday night. Granny B loved the live music, and we loved watching her sip her root beer and not so casually flirt with the {much} younger guitar player. Do try to enjoy the ride, before you know it these moments will only be memories.

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