The Sandwich Generation: playing the role of both parent and child

by Jennifer Jordan  /  photo by Erin Treadway

It is inevitable that all children will need to take care of their parents or other family members as they age.  Whether it is financial, emotional, or physical aid, helping an elderly person in some fashion is a natural stage of life.  After all, these parents and family members raised the babies who became children and adults—this is the life cycle at work.  However, there is a growing generation of people who are caring for their parents as well as their own children, young or adult.  This group, known as the “sandwich generation” for being sandwiched between children and parents, has grown steadily in the past ten years.   The term has even garnered a spot in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The sandwich generation is identified as adults between the ages of 40 and 59 who are supporting both elderly family members and their own children.  Longer life expectancy and delayed childbearing has resulted in more middle-aged people having dependent children and parents still living.  And, it is not only parents of young children who comprise the sandwich generation.  The Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. recently surveyed 2, 500 people, finding that 48% provide some amount of financial help to their grown children and 22% are the primary financial support for their grown children.  The survey cited college support for many respondents, but one-half of respondents cited other reasons for supporting their grown children.   These statistics likely reflect the slow recovery of the economy, which has caused difficulty in finding employment for many college graduates.  21% of the survey respondents are also helping their parents financially, so they are feeling the squeeze between the younger and older generations.  These particular sandwich parents face tough financial challenges of paying their own bills, their children’s bills, and their parents’ bills.  Emotional challenges can also arise as marriages and relationships can undergo strain. 

There are certainly benefits to having three or more generations of a family together—building or maintaining personal connections, teaching children family values, and allowing youth to help their grandparents.  Yet, the sandwich generation can also face a unique set of challenges, especially if an elderly parent has health concerns. Local mother and TRAHC consultant Jennifer Unger has first-hand experience in sandwich parenting.  After her father died four years ago, Jennifer’s now eighty-three-year-old moved from Dallas to Texarkana to be closer to her daughter and her family, which includes two grandchildren ages 6 and 2. Although she lives independently, Jennifer’s mother has had some health issues in the past year that have required extra help on her daughter’s part.  Jennifer notes that at times, “it is a struggle to find balance in my life. There are days when I feel torn between spending time with my mother to meet her needs and caring for my young children.” Even though her mother is recovering well from a recent brain tumor and a pulmonary embolism, Jennifer has extra daily tasks with her mother in addition to her job and her family.  She comments that “finding the balance of taking over the tasks and decisions that I need to make and allowing her to be as independent as possible is like walking a tight rope.”  Jennifer is thankful for her supportive husband, who helps with their children’s activities as well as her mother.  

The sandwich generation will continue to grow, as baby boomers age and eventually become the parents who require extra attention.  The most solid advice that aging experts give to caregivers is to take time for themselves regularly.  Being pulled in multiple directions can wear anyone out.  Caring for oneself provides the sandwich parent with the energy to handle routine tasks as well as emergency situations and the strength to give attention to both children and parents.  Paula Banks, LSW and CMC, in an article written for empoweringparents.com, points out that school-age children can sometimes feed off a parent’s stress and begin acting out at home or school.  Including children in the family plan and keeping them informed in an age-appropriate manner can allay children’s fears about the changes in their family life, but also give them a sense of their value as part of the family. 

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While it is difficult to always remain organized, sandwich parents should remain informed about their parents’ medical appointments as well as their medications.  Maintaining a copy of all medical and legal information is helpful, especially a power of attorney, should decisions need to be made if the elderly parent cannot make them on his or her own.  In addition to ensuring that one’s elderly parent has his or her legal affairs in order, a sandwich parent should engage in his or her own estate planning.  

Jennifer Unger remarks that, in Sunday school, she was taught the lesson of “honoring your mother and father,” which was reiterated at home by her parents.  Even though sandwich parenting presents daily challenges, she recommends approaching the situation with a sense of humor and also the knowledge that taking care of a parent still honors that parent.  “Managing the needs of multiple generations is both a challenge and a privilege.  I try to focus on the positive and remember those lessons taught so many years ago about honoring my father and mother.”

Tips for managing life as a sandwich parent:

  • You must prepare for the worst but expect the best
  • Educate yourself on issues – there are quite a few resources available: health care professionals, internet, friends
  • Be an advocate for your parent and be persistent – you know them better than almost anyone and have their best interest at heart
  • You cannot do it all – enlist help wherever possible from family, friends, neighbors, church
  • You WILL forget and miss things.  Keep lists and calendars updated and set clear priorities for all of the aspects in life – it is complicated to stay organized, even for the most organized person
  • Being parent of the year is not the goal – raising kids who respect you, themselves and those in your family is a loftier goal – keeping this in perspective is important
  • Set aside special time for your parent, your children, your spouse and for YOU (the last one is the hardest)
  • Keep a sense of humor – even in the midst of your frustrations and tears

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