My College:
Family Life

Sandwich Generation Support: Part 1, Emotions

Suzanne Shaffer


About the time my daughter was a junior in high school and my son was preparing to enter the military, my 92-year-old great aunt, who was like a second mother to me, moved in with us in our small three-bedroom house. My 80-year-old father was already living with us at the time, causing all sorts of stress and added emotional trauma. Both were accustomed to being independent and both struggled with knowing they were no longer able to live alone.

Being the oldest adult child in the family, the responsibility of caring for them rested on me. Although I was happy to give back to those who raised and cared for me and never considered it a burden, it added to the already stressful situation of raising a teenager who was preparing for college. Add to that the stress of having a son entering the military.

I was one of the millions of sandwich generation caregivers in the United States. 

What Is the “Sandwich Generation”?

The term “sandwich generation” was coined by social worker Dorothy A. Miller in 1981 to describe adult children of the elderly who are “sandwiched” between caring for their own children and their aging parents.

Over the past decade, studies on sandwich generation caregivers have become more popular, with the Pew Research Center and the National Caregiving Alliance performing regular surveys on caregiving habits. Several striking statistics show what makes this hard-working group unique:

  • More than one in 10 adults with a child under 18 also care for aging parents.
  • These caregivers spend about three hours a day providing unpaid care. Nearly three quarters of them are employed full-time. That’s 21 hours a week of caregiving on top of a 40-hour job.
  • About 60% of sandwich generation caregivers are women. Sandwich generation caregivers spend an average of 86 minutes less a day on paid work, and nearly half an hour less sleeping.

Long-term sandwich caregiving is becoming more common as the population ages and increased life expectancy means many seniors require family care. In many households, it’s common to see multiple generations living together. It certainly was in my family.

Balancing Caregiving Responsibilities

The challenges of being a member of the sandwich generation abound, but the worst one for me was weighing and managing all of my loved ones’ needs. 

Carol Bradley Bursack, author and elder consultant, in an article about her personal experiences as a sandwich generation caregiver, describes one particularly difficult scenario. Her son was recovering from an asthma attack just as her mother’s medical alert system went off. She was torn between helping her son and seeing to her mother. Thankfully, her son recuperated quickly, and she was able to check on her mom. You can imagine the fear and frustration she felt.

These hard choices occur on a daily basis for the sandwich generation. My daughter was involved in ROTC drill meets, senior honor society fundraisers and other extracurricular activities during high school. I was constantly being pulled between meeting my children’s needs and the needs of my great aunt and father. All felt neglected at times; I often felt guilty and torn.

Dealing With Stress

According to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey, mothers in the “sandwich generation” feel more stress than any other age group as they balance the demanding, delicate acts of caring for growing children and their aging parents. And while nearly two-in-five men and women in this age group feel overextended, the survey reveals that more women than men report experiencing extreme stress and say they manage their stress poorly.

If you’re feeling stress, as I did, try and identify the stressors. What situations trigger stressful feelings? Are they related to health issues, juggling responsibilities, focusing on work while dealing with elderly family members, or is it something else?

Once you have identified the causes of stress, try to put things into perspective. Try delegating some of the responsibility others can handle. Find ways your family and friends can help lessen your burden so you can take a break. 

For me, it was an escape to a late-night coffee shop after my father and great aunt were settled in bed for the night. It gave me time to sit and read in peace, and a chance to breathe and relax before facing the next day.

Prioritizing Self-Care

It’s important to remind yourself that you're not alone, and you don’t have to do everything yourself. It’s easy to become consumed by your role as caregiver and forget about your own wants and needs. 

While I was caring for my great aunt and father, I was also diagnosed with breast cancer. My main concern was who was going to take care of my family if I am having treatments? I began stressing about how to arrange my radiation appointments, attend my daughter’s drill meets and supervise my great aunt and father. 

A good friend reminded me that I could not take care of everyone else if I did not take care of myself. She was right.

Taking care of yourself should be a priority not an afterthought. Eat right, get enough sleep, exercise when you can and find time — make time! — to do something you enjoy. By doing this, you'll have the mental and physical energy to help those who need you.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

Enlist family and friends to help. You won’t survive this time in your life if you become the sole caregiver for your family. Many times, our families don’t know we are drowning. All we need to do is ask for help. Once I did, other family members pitched in where they could. My son offered to take my great aunt to her doctor’s appointments and her hair appointment every week. My daughter offered to help with meals. My brother committed to taking my great aunt and father out to eat once a week. He also promised to spend several days a month with them to give me a break.

If you continue to feel overwhelmed, there is no shame in seeking professional psychological support. Talking with a therapist or counselor can help you cope and better manage your stress or any unhealthy coping behaviors you might struggle with. It’s not easy caring for aging parents, especially if there are health and/or mental health issues. 

It might also be necessary to bring in some additional home health care or nursing care, especially if your parents are living with you. There came a time with my great aunt that her dementia was more than I could handle. She was trying to leave the house, could not take care of herself physically, and her memory was causing anger flare-ups. The professionals were able to help care for her and give me breaks during the day and night. I was grateful they were there.

The Blessings You Receive

Despite any difficulties, I valued the time I was able to spend with my great aunt and father toward the end of their lives. They had done so much for me. I wanted to be there for them.

My children often felt neglected at times, but now talk about the memories they made with the older generation during those years. My son and daughter got closer to my great aunt and father. They shared in their care and listened as they told many stories of their early years during the Great Depression, living on a farm, and serving in World War II. 

Though the years were stressful and at times painful, I treasure every moment we spent together, and I know it enriched my family as well.

Suzanne Shaffer counsels students and families through her blog, Parenting for College. Her advice has been featured in print and online on Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, U.S. News College, TeenLife, Smart College Visit, Road2College and more.
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