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Sandwich Generation Parenting Intensifies In a Pandemic

Marybeth Bock, MPH

You’re probably familiar with the term “Sandwich Generation” but may not think it applies to you.

Originally the phrase — introduced in the early 1980s — was intended to define women in their thirties and forties who were caring for their children while also having to meet most of the needs of their parents. Picture a Mom with a baby on her hip, setting dinner down onto a tray table for Grandma.

Over the past several decades, a number of factors in our society have changed considerably, resulting in a great deal of broadening when it comes to who is considered a Sandwich Generation caregiver.

The two demographic trends that have affected the numbers surrounding this phenomenon the most are people living longer and, as the result of a sluggish economy, more college and post-college young adults living at home with their parents. 

Now that we can add in a global pandemic and even further long-term economic uncertainty, the ranks of Sandwich Generation parents will only be increasing in the coming years.

So, what does that mean for the millions of us in our forties, fifties and sixties? The ones sandwiched between our college students and young adults, with all of their emerging needs, and our senior citizen parents with their own set of challenging and unique demands? 

The stark reality is that it usually means added stress in multiple areas of our lives — whether or not your kids or your parents physically live under your roof with you.

As I personally discovered a couple years ago, one’s introduction to the Sandwich Generation can be a time of extreme and conflicting emotions.

I had been looking forward to the summer before my son was due to start college while his older sister, a soon-to-be college junior, was readying herself for a six-month study abroad adventure in Australia. I thought my husband and I would enjoy savoring the last weeks spending time with our boy before we became empty nesters, and then start looking ahead to meeting up with our daughter in early December when her program ended.

As the summer progressed, my own father’s battle with dementia worsened. He lived in a neighboring state where one of my sisters was close by to help our mother with his increasing daily needs, yet it became a source of stress for our whole family, as my daughter accepted the possibility that her grandfather might pass while she was gone, and she would miss all of what that entailed.

I tried my best to stay positive, and to help my son focus on his transition to college life as we began shopping for dorm essentials. About 10 days before we were set to drive him to college, my sister called with the news that my Dad was quickly nearing the end of his life.

I got on a plane the next morning to join my Mom at their house. The flight there was a sad and surreal admission to myself that I would be simultaneously losing two of the men I held closest to my heart. One’s life was ending while the other’s was, in essence, just starting.

As fate would have it, on that same day that my Dad passed away, my beloved Mom was informed she had breast cancer. Over the next several weeks, as we planned my father’s memorial service, we were also preparing for and scheduling countless doctors’ appointments and treatment dates.

Those anxious days became a complete blur of consultation: discussing Mom's health care options with my siblings, advising my son on navigating his first semester away at college and trying not to get caught up in worries about his safety or academic success, and dealing with some minor health and daily living issues my daughter was experiencing on the other side of the world. My mental and emotional health were fragile at times.

During that year, as I shared my feelings and stories with close friends, my eyes were opened to just how common these sandwich issues are with practically every person my age. 

One friend has been dealing with in-laws who have both fallen several times but refuse to move out of their house or alter their normal activities. At the same time, that friend and her husband have been advising their daughters on important internships, career paths and helping them move. 

Another good friend has had to go help her parents when her father, already grappling with deteriorating eyesight, needed a heart valve replacement. Concurrently, she was helping her own daughter make a tough decision about embarking on a church missionary program after college graduation and assisting her move across the country. 

A third friend was coping with his mother’s leg amputation and eventual passing due to diabetes complications, and trying to keep his dad positive and engaged, all while helping his three young adult children transition through career launches, lay-offs, a small business start-up, and the college search and admissions process.

The stresses of sandwich caregiving can really begin to mount as you take on some or many of the logistics of the life transitions happening to your family members (the finances, legal issues and medical decisions) and the inevitable emotional toll that accompanies this — particularly now as we confront COVID-19 risks and fears.

There are relationship boundaries that need to be recognized, discussed and respected. It can be a fine line to walk, encouraging more independence for our college students, and gently attempting to lessen independence in some areas of our parents’ lives.

How can those of us who find ourselves in the caretaker and consultant roles for the two generations on either side of us best adapt and keep ourselves healthy, both physically and mentally, during these often turbulent years?

First, remember that open communication is key.

It’s always preferable to discuss long-term care needs with your parents before it becomes a crisis situation. Talk about wants and needs surrounding living arrangements, home care and finances.

Seek out assistance along the way.

There are helpful resources everywhere. Trying to do and be all things for an aging parent or for a young adult will quickly lead to burnout and begin to affect your own health and quality of life.

Communicate with your boss about flexible work hours and company benefits that might include eldercare or caregiver support groups.

When a child heads off to college, it’s the perfect opportunity for them to fully disengage from any helicopter parenting scenarios they may have become accustomed to. Colleges and universities provide abundant resources for every aspect of a student’s life, as long as they seek them out.

Be prepared to set boundaries, like having any kids who return home pay rent, or insisting that parents who can afford it purchase long-term care insurance.

Prioritize your own mental and physical health.

Gather extended family members and friends who can help out with tasks and, if you can afford it, utilize paid caregivers so that you get the occasional breaks that you will need.

We will probably be seeing many more three-generation households in the coming decade as a result of COVID-19 and the resultant economic downturn. We can choose to focus on the silver linings, though, like savings in property taxes, shared household tasks, and stronger inter-generational connection.

Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adult students and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor and freelance writer. Marybeth has a bachelor's degree in psychology from UCLA and a master's in public health from San Jose State University. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing. You can find her work on multiple parenting sites and in two books.
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