If you are among the large and growing number of adults squeezed between the needs of an aging parent, relative or friend; and the demands of children, spouses and careers; you are a member of the Sandwich Generation – and you are not alone. Surveys estimate 22.4 million U.S. households – nearly one in four – now are providing some form of elder care. Baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1965) are likely to spend more years caring for a parent than raising children; and for the first time in history, many families have more parents to care for than children to raise.
Fortunately, family ties are strong and studies show that most adult children feel very close to their parents. It is this love and a sense of responsibility that compels us to care for those who once cared for us. While we accept the responsibility for elder care, there is a multitude of issues and concerns associated with the Sandwich Generation and its conflicting care giving demands.
Today, most people live into their seventies and eighties, and many live into their nineties. Just as toddlers and teenagers cause certain kinds of family crises, so do aging and ill parents. Elders face unique challenges and concerns. As people age they may need help with anything from finances to driving. Elders move from the “young-old” stage where reasonable good health is enjoyed and basic needs can be independently met, to the “old-old” stage with serious illness where the need for help is critical. At times assistance with household tasks, transportation and shopping allows elders to live independently. However, as the needs progress due to illness or frailty, the care giving tasks become more demanding.
The greatest challenge for many elders is learning to accept vulnerability and ask for help. Mary Pipher, Ph.D. suggests in her powerful book: Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders, it is helpful to view life as a time line. She writes: “we realize that all of us are sometimes more and sometimes less dependent on others. At certain stages we are caretakers, and at other stages we are cared for. Neither state is superior to the other. Neither implies pathology or weakness. Both are just the result of life having seasons and circumstances. In fact, good mental health is not a matter of dependent or independent, but of being able to accept the stage one is in with grace and dignity. It’s an awareness of being, over the course of one’s lifetime, continually interdependent.”
There are wonderful benefits to intergenerational family experiences. Caring for parents often means that children have more time with grandparents, which is good for children at any age but especially important for teenagers. Grandparents tend to be wiser and kinder than adolescent peers. They are less busy than parents. When children assist and participate in the lives of elders they have an opportunity to appreciate the value of being truly helpful and grow in their understanding of other generations.
Members of the Sandwich Generation need practical help balancing family obligations. Too many caregivers think they are failures if they don’t successfully keep all needs met. It’s not realistic to think one person can know or do everything. Take advantage of outside services, allow yourself a break from continual care, and enlist the support of family and friends. Most communities offer a variety of helpful resources that provide everything from day care for the elderly to opportunities for socialization and enjoyable activities.
Assisting in the care of elder parents while still raising children is a rewarding, important, but daunting task. It is most helpful to define this care as a family shared joyful responsibility where each generation has its own gifts to share with the other generations.