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Family Life

Surviving the Sandwich Generation

Shari Bender

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The glamour of the Empty Nest. Well, I’m here to touch on the not-so-glamorous side. That is the side our aging parents, and the plight of the sandwich generation.

Those of us in the sandwich generation are responsible for raising children and getting them launched into adulthood while we balance care for our elderly parents. This, coupled with the role of spouse or with a demanding work schedule, can easily lead to caregiver burnout and jumbled feelings of sadness, guilt and isolation.

A recent health event sent my previously spry 78-year-old mother to the ER. She ambled unsteadily into the hospital-issued wheelchair — the same woman who just a few days prior did an online Zumba class with me. Always a force to be reckoned with, seemingly overnight, she somehow became “old.”

Aging can be a precarious journey, as we all know. I have seen so many friends deal with the financial and emotional burden of an aging parent.

We rally, as we always do, and if we're lucky, we have good friends and family around us to help navigate the sometimes not-so-golden years with our parents.

You will likely find yourself in this position, either with your own parent or as a bystander to a friend’s parent healthcare woes. I have often been the support system for others, but this time, I was the one on the receiving end of care and concern.

How can you help a hurting and overwhelmed friend?

It's okay if you do not have the emotional bandwidth to “be there” for a friend. That space is reserved for the nearest and dearest and those capable.

That said, I'll let you in on a secret. “If there’s anything I can do, let me know” is not a helpful thing to say to someone in crisis. More often than not the individual in need of help won't even bother responding. Would you?

If you want and are able to be a support system for the caregiver, here is a suggested list of things to do/say/text to ease the burden on the family, in order of more effort to less effort.

  • “How can I help?” This is a wonderful open-ended question that lets the recipient know that you genuinely are offering assistance. Even if the person responds, “You can’t,” they will know that you care about them, and you can offer further emotional support with follow-ups: “What is stressing you out the most right at this moment?” Adding heart and prayer emojis can often further illuminate the loving intentions behind the ask, since a text message can lack emotion.
  • “I’m going to the grocery store/pharmacy, what can I get for you?” This question is often well received because even as we are going through our own struggles, we may not wish to inconvenience others. If you tell your friend that you were going to the store anyway, they're more likely to respond if there is indeed something you can pick up for them.
  • “Does [insert name of child here] need a ride to any activities? I'm free this afternoon and also on Friday.” Offering a ride to a child still at home, as we all know, can help when logistics get complicated and ease caregiver burnout. Giving your struggling friend a concrete idea of your availability will help them plan if their difficulties are ongoing.

If you are not in a position to help, or aren't comfortable doing so, that's okay too. We all have our journey and families to manage. Even a few simple words can offer comfort to someone struggling with the needs of their children (no matter what the ages) and their older parents.

  • “Thinking of you.”
  • “Praying for your (mom/dad).”
  • “Sending you extra strength today.”

The art of being a good friend when the chips are down can be a really challenging task. Even a “Sorry you're going through this” text can add an extra dose of love to the hurting family member.

On behalf of all the Sandwichers out there, sending a little extra light your way.

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Shari earned her BA in Communication from Stanford University and freelances all things Communication and Marketing. She is a cat-loving spiritual vegan and former admissions interviewer. With two grown children, Shari is happily and sentimentally embracing her Empty Nest along with her husband of more than 30 years. Her musings delight parents in numerous publications and online platforms, including CollegiateParent and Grown & Flown.
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