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Sandwich Generation Stress: 6 Ways to Cope While Raising Kids and Caring for Elderly Parents

by Paula Banks, LSW, CMC
Sandwich Generation Stress: 6 Ways to Cope While Raising Kids and Caring for Elderly Parents

“My boss yelled at me for missing my third day of work in two weeks, but I had to go help Dad. What choice did I have? His dementia is getting worse and he keeps forgetting to take his medication. Last night the neighbors found him wandering around in his pajamas. Two hours after I checked on him, my teen's assistant principal called to tell me my daughter is being suspended for skipping school again. On top of all that, my husband is traveling a lot for work, the house is a mess, no one is paying attention to the dog, I've put on 25 pounds and I can honestly say that I haven’t had one day of fun in the past three years. I feel like I’m going to disintegrate if something doesn't give soon.”

In families where there are tremendous competing needs (like kids and aging parents) these crises can become a self-perpetuating situation.

If the above scenario sounds familiar, welcome to the “Sandwich Generation.” There’s almost nothing more draining, stressful, emotional and guilt-inducing than caring for an elderly parent or relative while raising kids. I know what this is like because I’ve been there myself—and my life’s work has been devoted to helping people who are caring for elderly or sick relatives. If you are in this situation right now, you’re probably feeling pretty overwhelmed and alone. I want to tell you that regaining some peace and order in your life is possible. You can learn how to handle the obstacles and difficulties that arise—and you can also let go of some of the guilt, stress and other energy-draining emotions that pull you down and make you feel defeated and exhausted.

Related: How to stay sane while caring for your parents and raising your kids

I understand how alone, frightened and unsure you can feel—and how cheated, as well. Maybe this is that time in your life when you thought all your hard work raising a family and advancing your career would have paid off. Instead, your life feels out of control, your family is a mess, your marriage is on the rocks and you are very close to losing your job. Well, let me tell you, you are not alone! There are approximately 20 million women in this country between the ages of 45 and 56—and a whopping 10 percent of them are members of the Sandwich Generation. The numbers of hours and dollars they spend in the care and support of their children and parents are into the billions. (While we have many more men than ever before stuck in the Sandwich Generation, the burden still falls to women in most cases.)

It’s no surprise how this has evolved over the past 20 years, given the demographic changes in this country. We have more women in the workforce, increased life expectancy, couples having children later in life and smaller families—meaning fewer siblings are available to share in the caregiving for their elders. And for parents stuck in the Sandwich Generation, the stress can be extreme. It’s no wonder that marriage and family therapists often refer their clients to geriatric care managers for support.

Related: Kids acting out while you try to take care of your elderly parents?

My Mother Fell Down Again—and My Kids Are Constantly Acting Out. Help!

Children often act out when their parents are under extreme pressure from the numerous responsibilities of taking care of elderly or sick relatives. Acting-out behavior might occur if your child is:

  • Anxious about what's going on within the family
  • Sad about the changes their grandparents/relatives are experiencing
  • Feeling ignored because your attention is elsewhere
  • Scared of what's going to happen

Your child might also just be plain angry and feeding off the stress in your household—a house that might feel as if it’s frequently in crisis mode. If this is the case, it’s important for you to step back, take a deep breath, evaluate what's going on in your home and make a plan to take back control of your situation. Preparing by creating a plan will help make you feel stronger and more empowered in your life—and less like you're living from crisis to crisis.

What does this plan look like?

1. Stop the “Screech”…and Breathe. When it comes to crises, I ask my clients all the time, “Is someone in immediate or imminent danger of death or injury? If the answer is “no” then I tell them it is not a crisis. It may be a major issue or major concern but not a crisis. What happens in families where there are tremendous competing needs (like kids and aging parents) is that these crises just become a self-perpetuating situation. Everyone is meeting “screech with screech” and there is simply no need for it. I advise my clients to take four very deep breaths, clear their head and slow down that “fight or flight” response. Take a step back and then begin. They can teach their kids to do this also by simply refusing to go to screech.

Your parent's crisis might have come before your child's or vice versa. One may be feeding the other. If you step back, take a look and stop reacting all over the place you can break it down to understandable, manageable pieces. I can’t say it enough: Breathe. It sounds silly, but studies show that people who are under tremendous stress often forget to breathe. Steady, mindful breathing calms us down and gets crucial oxygen to our brains. That clarity will help you make better decisions.

Related: How to maintain your sanity while you care for your parents and raise your kids.

2. No More “Shoulda, Coulda, Wouldas” I always say that guilt is one of the most useless emotions—and the most embraced one in the world! We humans are great at feeling guilty for everything. It takes a lot of work to let go of guilt, especially for those of us in the Sandwich Generation. Because you are caring for kids, your aging parents, your spouse, your home, your community and your job, you probably feel like you have a million masters and can never please any of them. I believe this is where we must understand and tell ourselves daily that anything and everything we are doing is helping and that it matters. Identify where you might need some support or assistance, but don't get stuck in the constant “coulda-shoulda-woulda's” because it is just counter-productive.

3. Ask for Help…And Say “Yes” to It When someone offers to help, say, “Yes!” And sometimes you will need to ask for help as well—don’t hesitate. My clients are always amazed at how many people will pitch in if you ask. If you’re raising kids and caring for an elderly or sick relative, it’s also important for you to know that there is help for you—both for dealing with your children and your aging parents. The key is to know how to access that assistance.

For some, that assistance is as close as your child's school. School social workers and guidance counselors can be a good resource for finding assistance and services for your child and family. Often, people around you are dealing with aging relatives as well. Try reaching out—what’s the worst that could happen? And don't forget your faith community. Talk to your clergyman and ask him or her to send word out that you need some help with chores, respite, sitting with your elder or meals. People love to help and will do so if asked. The Area Agencies on Aging (in almost all communities) can help with resources as well. Go to www.n4a.org to find one in your area.

4. Include your child in the family plan. I am a big fan of intergenerational learning—and there is nowhere better to start than your own family. No matter their age, ability, maturity or behavior, all children can help their parents care for their elderly relatives. Whether it’s your five-year-old son bringing Nana a cup of juice, your teen visiting with Grandpa and helping him walk out to the sun porch, or your 23-year-old driving Aunt Rose to her doctor's appointments, all kids can help in some way. Helping others makes us feel needed and wanted—and that we matter.

I think it’s also important to share with your kids about the changes that are happening within the family and with your aging parent. When kept “age appropriate,” the information will actually decrease your child's fear, anxiety and acting-out behaviors. For example, if you have a grandparent who has suffered a hip fracture and is going to be staying with you for a while until they heal, you might tell a 4-year-old, “Nana has a boo-boo on her leg. We are going to help her feel better." You can give your 14-year-old more information:  “Nana fell in the driveway and broke her hip. She's in a lot of pain and needs our help right now. She’s going to be staying with us for a while until she feels better. We really need you to sit with Nana after school and help her out until we get home from work." Keep it age appropriate but do share—it’s important for kids to feel needed and respected.

Related: Doing too much for your kids—and everybody else?

There is very little we should not involve our kids in when caring for aging parents. Your kids always know more than you think they do! And if they are too young to understand it, they still know something is happening and changing. Even death, one of the scariest words in the world for us humans, is something kids can be part of. Because it is part of the circle of life, kids should know that it happens, is part of the life cycle and not a silent subject.

While it is important to keep things age appropriate when it comes to any issue of aging, there are teachable moments everywhere. So, for instance, while it is unpleasant for a child to see a grandparent who is agitated due to their dementia, you can learn how to decrease the agitation, have the child see the grandparent when they are most calm, and explain that their dementia causes them to act differently than they used to but they are still the same Nana who always loved them. There are many resources out there, including www.alz.org, where one can learn about dementia, behaviors and coping strategies.

5. The 3 R’s:  Respite, Respite and Respite. When you’re sandwiched in between all this stress, it’s crucial to take some time for yourself. Schedule “respite” into your calendar. Meet a good friend for coffee if you can, or call someone to talk. Take a book to the beach, take a walk around your block, go shopping and do something fun for you. Build this into your plan of action because by doing so, you will be healthier physically and emotionally—and prepared to keep going.

This may seem impossible because you may be thinking, “Who will watch Mom when she can’t be left alone?” The answer is easy: You can ask a friend to sit with her—or even offer to pay for their time. Also, home care agencies have people trained to care for your loved one. They can provide respite so you can get out for a while. Most have two hour minimums and cost about $25 an hour. If you can afford it, do it! It is worth every penny to help you get refreshed and keep you sane—and to give your mind and body a break from caregiver mode.

Related: How to stop living in “crisis mode” with your elderly parents.

6. Stay in touch. One of the tough things about being caught in the Sandwich Generation is that between caring for your kids, trying to keep your job and caring for aging parents, you have little to no energy left for socialization with peers. Socialization is critical to all of us for emotional and physical health—so reach out. Talk to family and friends, your faith community and try to reconnect with the groups or clubs that used to interest you. These are critical connections that will sustain you. Don't let them drift away. Feeling isolated and alone is one of the worst parts of caring for others, and is also one of the hardest aspects of elder care. If you simply don't have time or energy for these things at present, make it a goal for the near future. And if you have no one to talk to, there are many caregiver support groups throughout the country. Go to www.n4a.org to find one near you.

I always say that “action equals strength!” By creating a plan to handle the situation of being caught in the Sandwich Generation, you will be able to take control of the chaos you are swimming in. You will be able to breathe, calm your house down, look at and separate the issues of your children, aging parents, marriage and yourself. You owe it to your physical and mental health to understand what is going on and how to get the assistance needed to make a plan that will benefit everyone in your family.  


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Paula Banks, a Certified Geriatric Care Manager, is also a Licensed Social Worker with 27 years of clinical experience working with seniors and their caregivers. Paula has worked in hospitals, nursing homes and home care agencies throughout New England. Direct service to seniors and their families is her passion. She is a board member of the Maine Gerontological Society, an organization dedicated to advancing the field of aging and the care of older adults as well as their caregivers through service, training, advocacy and research.

READER'S COMMENTS

Boy, you sure hit the nail on the head with this article. You described me to a tee right down to the dementia mentioned in the article. Not only that but the nearest family is 45 min away and my husband works crazy hours.I have one child with ADD and the other with dyslexia and they are in elementary and middle school. Plus I drive to take care of my mom twice a week and work the other 32 hours at a job. There is never enough of me and everyone feels neglected. How do I explain it to them that I do the best I can to help everyone but sometimes fall short of the goal. I need their understanding not more demands. How do you suggest I go about it?

Comment By : Suzie215

* Wow Suzie, talk about being in the thick of it! My hat is off to you because you really are living it. And you are to be commended for ALL that you are doing. Please remind yourself that everything you are doing helps and it all matters! First of all, I'd like you to take some of the pressure off yourself. Your comment that 'There is never enough of me and everyone feels neglected' deserves a look. Are you hearing this from your family members or are YOU feeling this way? Sometimes the demands of caregiving can MAKE us feel this way. If your family members are saying these things, it is time for a discussion with them. You might start with your spouse and make sure he understands the impact of all your competing demands. You and your spouse would then want to talk to your kids and present a united front. You will want to prepare for this by making some decisions and possible changes to the family routine. To do this, my suggestions are: 1) Talk to your husband and enlist him in your efforts to talk to your children. Set a weekly 'family meeting' time, keep it brief and age appropriate and talk about what's going on with the family. Ask kids for their ideas - kids love to help and will feel included and part of things. 2) See if there is any support available in your job (for example an EAP program with counseling or elder care assistance) 3) Assert yourself and ASK for and accept help from family and friends with anything you need, from childcare so you can get out to exercise to some caregiving assistance for your Mom from family, friends and neighbors. Most will help if you ask. 4) Visit websites like www.caregiver.org or www.alz.org to educate yourself about help and services for your Mom and her dementia 5) Visit www.n4a.org to see about 'caregiver classes' designed to decrease stress for family caregivers. 6) Make your mental and physical health a priority. Eat well, sleep enough, go to your own doctor's appointments and exercise - just take a walk, with or without your kids. You need to take care of you. And it is important for your family to SEE that you are taking care of yourself. The answer to your question of, 'How do I explain to them that I do the best I can to help everyone but sometimes fall short of the goal?' is to believe it yourself first and foremost. You are human, you have quite a few balls in the air and it might be unrealistic to believe you can do it all alone with no help. Maybe you can start with “Guys, Mom really needs your help. I'm taking care of a lot of things: Nana, work and most importantly, you! So I'm going to ask you for a little help.' Just start the conversation. Don't worry about doing it 'right.’ You can come back to it over and over again, but the important thing is to start to ask for what YOU need. You are right; you do need your family's understanding and not more demands. The best way to do that is to start the conversation. It sure sounds like you’re doing a great job - give yourself the credit you deserve! Best of luck, and please let us know how it goes.

Comment By : Paula Banks, LSW, CMC

My kids are both male, they do not help me or their father when needed. Somehow they become present if someone is going to see them. I took care of my Mom and consider it to have been the most wonderful experience I could have ever asked for.

Comment By : janilou

My 4-year-old's counselor actually sent this to me and at first I Thought there was no way it would apply to me. I'm not even 30 yet and so reading that this applied mainly to 45-55 I almost closed the article. Boy am I glad I didn't! My mother has been diabetic my entire life and a brittle diabetic since I was 11. I started doing her home health care and changing out bobbles of feeding supplement for her intestinal feeding tube when I was 12. My husband and I lost our daughter shortly after birth a year and a half ago and have since moved in with my parents for a number of reasons. I started back to school in August and 10 days after the semester began, my mother had an accident and fell, breaking her femur and leaving her non-weight bearing through mid-November. So presently, I care for my 54-year-old mother, a 4-year-old autistic son who also has the signs of PTSD, deal with PTSD myself, am an army wife and hold down the house work, meals, and laundry for 5 people while finishing up my pre-med courses. It's very lonely, but after reading this, it's not QUITE as lonely.

Comment By : aiwi4u2am

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elder care, aging parents, raising kids, extended family, caring for elderly parents, sandwich generation stress

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