Many of today’s couples are providing care for their children as well as their parents.
From the weary trenches of early parenthood, it’s easy to view the decades ahead with rosy-colored glasses. Someday, the kids will be more independent and life won’t be filled with lessons, soccer games, and school tuition bills. Things will get easier, right?
Instead, parents often find the future brings a heavier workload, not a lighter one, as they join millions of others in the “sandwich generation,” caring for an aging parent (or two) while raising their own brood. This increasingly common scenario can be burdensome, or a blessing in disguise, says Carol L. Russell, Ed.D., author of Sandwiched! Tales, Tips, and Tools to Balance Life in the Sandwich Generation.
Often, it’s both burden and blessing, and whether “sandwiched” parents thrive or burn out is a matter of how well they learn to balance an unwieldy bundle of responsibilities. But it is possible to manage the needs of multiple generations without drowning in neediness, notes Russell. And caregiving and active parenting happily co-exist, even complement one another.
A swelling sandwich
According to the New York Academy of Medicine, some 42 million women between the ages of 35 and 54 make up the “sandwich generation,” tending to growing children and aging parents simultaneously, often during their peak career years (the AARP reports that three-fourths of family caretakers hold down jobs). According to the AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving, nearly two out of three adults caring for an older family member or friend are female.
Thanks to a trend toward delayed parenthood (pregnancy rates for women aged 40-44 have been on the rise since 1991), more women find themselves caring for elderly parents while their own children are still firmly in the nest. And these caregivers are becoming increasingly squeezed: according to Georgetown University, the number of people over the age of 65 is expected to increase by 2.3 percent annually, while the number of eligible family caregivers will only increase by .8 percent.
Slipping into sandwich mode
Becoming a caregiver to an aging parent usually doesn’t happen overnight. Shuttling a parent to doctors’ appointments and errands gradually morphs into arranging for in-home care, poring over finances, and coordinating triage with other family members.
For Russell, a mom of three daughters, caring for her parents started with long-distance care. After two years of arranging round-the-clock help and supervision from hours away, she and her husband opted to move her parents to a newly-built home on their property in Kansas.
Whether caregivers tend to aged parents in their own home, from thousands of miles away, or in a nursing home, the adjustment to being “on call” 24/7 can be a rough one, says Russell. As she quickly learned, finding outside support can be an essential aspect of family caregiving.
Caregivers are susceptible to burnout, says family therapist Jill Gross, Psy.D. “You have to secure your own oxygen mask before you can help someone else.” Caregivers must co-prioritize their own health along with that of their parents, says Gross. Caregiver support groups are also available, she says. Caregiver support groups, such as caregiver.com, list available groups by area.
Outside help is a lifeline for caregivers, but finding that support—even from other family members—can be a stressor in its own right. Caring for an aging parent can strain even the closest sibling bonds, says Toby Donner. Caretaking often puts one grown sibling in the driver’s seat, with others providing backup support. These vastly different roles spark communication blunders, and resentment can pile up on both sides.
Each grown sibling will approach the issue with a fundamentally different perspective, notes Gross. “The primary caregivers, the people on the front lines who are actually caring for the parent, are seeing and experiencing the world in a different way than the other siblings.” But finding common ground is possible. Experts agree that effective family meetings can be the cornerstone of positive sibling relationships during the sandwich years. Gross recommends that siblings schedule a meeting face-to-face or via Skype, free of distractions.
Agree on a start and stop time to the meeting in advance. “It’s better to have a number of short 20-to-30 minute conversations than one that goes on too long,” says Gross. Participants should come to the meeting with a short list of goals regarding the care of the aging parent, and begin the session by identifying a primary goal for the meeting: keeping mom safe in her home, for example.
“When siblings compare goals, they’ll often find that they’re concerned about the same things,” says Gross. “From there, a natural triage will emerge, and people will naturally come together to a place of openness instead of defensiveness.” Siblings who can’t get on the same page can find help in the form of family mediation. “Some mediators specialize in this topic,” says Gross. “A neutral third party can be immensely helpful in facilitating a productive meeting.”
Caring with kids
Though juggling parental care and parenting stretches a busy schedule to the limit, caretaking with kids in tow can be a multigenerational boon. Managing both roles simultaneously comes more naturally than many parents assume, says Toby Donner. The skillset used for parenting and the skillset used for caregiving are the same. “You’re parenting your kids and you’re essentially parenting your parents, too,” she notes.
Witnessing and taking part in caretaking helps kids internalize a family’s core values, such as helping others, caring for those in need and prioritizing our loved ones, says Gross. Children learn that sacrifices must sometimes be made to accommodate loved ones, and that we may have to put aside our own interests to help others, she says. These lessons may get lip service from parents, but nothing drives the point homelike seeing parents walk their talk. “Regardless of a child’s age, it says a lot to a child to see a parent caring for an aging parent.”
Caretaking is often a constant exercise in problem-solving — and a way for kids to hone those strategic skills. Worried about grandma falling at home? Need to find a way for grandpa to hear the TV? Kids can help brainstorm and implement solutions for these kinds of concerns. Teenagers and older children may be able to drive grandparents to medical appointments.
Caretaking has given Rosenthal’s children a deeper, more meaningful bond with their grandparents. “Before, my children were peripherally engaged. Now, my mom is in a walker and can’t bend down, so my daughter helps her garden. Seeing them working together to pot a plant, laughing and sparking memories. That’s really, really special.”
By Malia Jacobson, a nationally published freelance writer. She specializes in health and parenting and blogs about both at thewellrestedfamily.com.
Additional Tips for Caring for Seniors
Is caregiving in your future? Avoid problems down the road with small steps today.
Start “The Conversation”
Whether your parent is 55 or 75, asking whether he or she has a health directive or living will is a simple,non-threatening conversation starter.
The cost of allowing a parent to continue driving when he or she is no longer safe behind the wheel is too high to ignore. If a parent clings to the keys, enlist family members or a family counselor for support.
Heed the “Big Ds”
Plan to review wills and other relevant documents each time a “Big D” rolls around: every decade, when someone dies, gets divorced, has a major diagnosis, or a decline in functioning.
Source: Carol L. Russell, Ed.D., author of Sandwiched! Tales, Tips, and Tools to Balance Life in the Sandwich Generation