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Coping with Challenges as Sandwich Generation Caregivers

By Branka Primetica | 08/12/2020

The term “sandwich generation” originated in the early 1980s to define the population of caregivers who care for aging relatives and raise their own children. These caregivers manage multiple responsibilities, including work, childcare, household duties and care tasks for their parents, in-laws or other aging relatives. For those of us who are caregivers of the sandwich generation, we may find ourselves feeling overwhelmed as demands grow larger and there is not enough time in the day to take care of everything. The COVID-19 pandemic has made these responsibilities far more challenging, as we may be dealing with work, teaching our children at home and managing household duties. At the same time, we may also be doing more distant caregiving due to social distancing recommendations if our loved ones don’t live in the same household, and especially if their immune system is compromised. 

What does the “sandwich generation” look like?

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, face unique challenges, in that more women in 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 rapidly approaching the “sandwich generation” as they have children and they, and their parents, age. Unlike the use of the terms “Generation X” and “Millennials,” members of the “sandwich generation” are not defined by age group; rather they are defined by shared experiences that allow them to form a natural bond. 

Challenges of the “sandwich generation”

“Sandwich generation” caregivers often face more challenges compared to their non-caregiving peers – mainly related to caregiving, financial and emotional strains. As a sandwich generation caregiver, you may be able to relate to starting the day getting your children ready for school, checking in on your in-laws who are living independently, heading off to work, then later getting a call from the school that your younger child is ill while you were on your way to pick-up your father and drive him to a doctor’s appointment. You begin to panic and make a few calls to see if your sister is able to leave work early and drive your father to the appointment. In the evening, you make dinner for everyone, debrief about what happened at the medical appointment, plan next steps and help your children with homework. Once everyone is asleep, you have a long list of additional tasks to do, including completing school paperwork and finishing up some work-related tasks. Then it’s off to bed for a few hours of sleep before starting another labor-intensive day.

This image is very familiar to those of us who are caring for younger and older family members. It can be exhausting for some, rewarding for others, or a mixed bag of both for many.

Coping with the challenges of “sandwich generation caregiving”

The missing piece in the above description is at what point during the day or night did this exhausted caregiver take time for a break? Managing multiple tasks, especially unplanned events, takes a toll on our emotional and physical health. Amid the chaos, let’s close our eyes and think about what we will you do for short period of time during the day, even if it’s 15-20 minutes, that is just for ourselves. Perhaps it’s sitting down and closing our eyes, stretching or exercising. Maybe it’s going to a drive through to buy a favorite beverage or other special treat for ourselves. Maybe it’s calling a friend or relative to chat as we’re driving from points A to B.

These activities will give us the opportunity to relax and energize so that we are able to feel refreshed when visiting with parents and spending time with our own families. We can find time to slow down and engage in a pleasant conversation or try to make new memories by doing an activity that we once enjoyed together. The same is true when spending time with our own children. 

In order to be able to take more breaks and alleviate stress, it’s important to explore our informal and formal support networks so we’re not trying to do everything on our own. We can start by sitting down and writing a list of things that we do on a daily, weekly or monthly basis related to caring for parents, children and family, and managing the household. We can then ask ourselves what tasks on the lists can someone else do, even if it’s not all the time. We may say, “but it’s easier for me to do it.” Compromise is the key here. As with anything in life – “pick your battles” and “don’t sweat the small stuff.” It may come as a surprise how effective we are capable of being when we open this door. 

If we struggle with any aspect of asking for help, or have our own questions about caregiving, it’s important that we 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. We can 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 us access nearby services.