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The “Sandwich Generation”: What is it? And, How to Manage this Life Role

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The question raised in the title is one that I found myself asking as I faced my “sandwich generation” role with an aging parent and an ill spouse — it sure feels like I’m in the middle of that sandwich! Writing a blog is both a learning/teaching opportunity, as well as a therapeutic one, so here I sit exploring for all of us this increasingly important topic.

The term sandwich generation initially came about in the late 80’s and was used predominantly for women who were raising young children, working and entering into a parent caretaking role. It later evolved into a term for both men and women who were raising children and caring for aging parents. Then a new term surfaced, “Club Sandwich” which described those of us in our 50’s/60’s caring for aging parents, and sandwiched with the needs of adult children [“Boomerangers”] and grandchildren; it could also refer to individuals in their 30’s/40’s who are sandwiched between their children, parents and grandparents in multiple caretaking roles.

So, it seems I don’t completely fit in any of those definitions. Maybe those of us who are in our 60’s/70’s who are blessed enough to have parents still with us and a spouse who we remain lovingly connected with are a new breed. Medical science has miraculously increased our lifespan and there is a new sandwich that is evolving; maybe we are part of a Mega-Club Sandwich. I find myself in a caretaking role with my sister for my mother [layer 1], in a partnership-caretaking role with my spouse while still having an active professional career [layer 2-3], being cared for by our adult children [layer 4] as they still care for their own children/partners [layers 5-6] – Voila, the Mega-Club Sandwich! Regardless of what we call ourselves, regardless of the type of caretaking we are sandwiched between, the stressors are real.

Above all else, remember, if you don’t take care of yourself, you will not be able to properly take care of others. Self-care comes in many forms, including making sure you get exercise, proper nutrition, sleep and regular appointments to manage your own health/mental health needs. Self-care is about knowing yourself and how you can prepare for the potential marathon of caretaking without sacrificing your own mental and physical well-being. The following provides some guidance on how to manage those stressors, while also remaining present for the individuals we love so much.

Save Time with How You Update Family

Being a caregiver often means that other family members will depend on you for current updates which can add “one more thing” to your already long to-do list, and more stress to your already packed schedule. In our age of technology a simple solution is to develop a regular update via a group email/text message rather than returning individual phone calls, text messages or emails. To help offset questions, let individuals know that updates will occur on a regular schedule [e.g., Mondays/Wednesdays] or unless circumstances warrant an interruption in that schedule.

Share the Load

You may handle most of the caretaking duties but that doesn’t mean you need to do absolutely everything yourself. Both the individual needing extra care and yourself may feel uncomfortable with asking for help, yet when you do, it is probably going to be received with graciousness and willingness by others. Recently I had a phone call with my godmother asking if she could cover some time with my mother due a conflict in my schedule; her response had us both in tears, she was “honored” to be asked and grateful she could make this contribution. Amazing things come from just asking.

Clarify Roles with Siblings and Others

In most families there is typically one sibling who is the “responsible one” and oftentimes others defer to this individual without asserting how they might contribute to the caretaking responsibilities. Talk with siblings/other caretakers about “expertise” that can be managed by others and taken off the plate of the “responsible one”; everyone benefits and there is an avoidance of feeling shut out, unwanted or not being able to contribute to the caretaking responsibilities. In our family my daughter is the “insurance expert”, so when questions come up about a response from the insurance provider she is the “go-to” person; with my mother, I am the “internet person” meaning that when it comes to research and ordering supplies, I’m “that gal”!

Get Some Help

If there is a scarcity of individuals who can commit the time to helping with caretaking rounds, hiring someone may be an option. Many caretaking resources have proliferated with the baby boomer generation, so finding a senior care aide, a regularly scheduled babysitter/nanny, or something as simple as housekeeper can make a difference. I’ve also started to see intergenerational day programs that combine adult and child care under one roof with benefits seen for all. Review the budget and see what you can afford or research social service agencies and how they might help.

Talk to Your Employer

Time and quality of life become extremely valuable commodities when we move into the caretaking world. Talk to your employer about flex schedules, working remotely or covered time off for caretaking responsibilities.

Prioritize and Organize Your “To-Do” List

There are so many things to take care when caring for someone else; finances, doctor’s appointments, daily food/medication schedules, bathing, grocery shopping and taking care of you. Make a schedule of daily activities and schedules, identify the tasks on each day, and then begin to prioritize those things that you, alone, can do and those other things that others can do in this caretaking world.

Be Selfish

Take some time for yourself. In your daily schedule identify at least one thing you can do for yourself; things like listening to music when your family member is sleeping, doing some yoga stretches on the floor or even scheduling a regular weekly afternoon by someone else covering for you where you can just be with yourself. My sister has to remind my mother when she is feeling guilty for “extra work” my sister is doing, that pulling weeds and pruning roses is her therapy.

Be Present During the Day

Caretaking is stressful, period. Sometimes we begin to feel the stress as “normal” and forget to be present in what is good around us. Staying with my mother for the first time over a weekend I initially found myself anxious about not hearing her if she called, or getting confused with her medication; tenseness in the home I grew up in did not feel right. Then, as I was watering her roses and my father’s 50 year old avocado tree I let myself be transported to the warmth and joy of this home, and reflected on the love and care we all felt, and that we still do. Such a nice alternative to stress and tension, making me much more present with my mother in a loving and gentle way.

Lean on Support

As a helping professional I often suggest to my clients that when faced with a life crisis, finding those support systems is critical at the beginning. Those systems can be a therapist, a group for family members/caretakers, best friends, or relatives that offer the type of listening, support and comfort you need. You can’t do it alone, so why try? Without this support it can be a long, lonely and sorrowful road; with support you aren’t alone and you are “brought into the here and now” by others who love you.

So whether you are sandwich generation, mega-sandwich generation, or simply someone who now has the honor to walk with someone on their life journey, it is important to take care of yourself. You are worth it, and your charge deserves someone who is present and compassionate. And, if all else fails, just step outside into the sunshine and just breathe. Just breathe. And maybe pull a few weeds.

Image: Hector A Parayuelos on flickr and reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0

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