María D. Parrilla de Kokal is a psychology professor at Weber State University. You can read more of her work on her From the Community column, From the Salty Mountain. If you’d like to write a From the Community column of your own, get in touch with News Editor Ann Elise Taylor at email@example.com.
July is Sandwich Generation Month. This sounds like a yearly celebration recognizing a wide array of tasty sandwiches. It is not. Rather, it refers to humans who are “sandwiched,” or squished, between two groups of people they care for who consume their time and energy.
In 1981, Dorothy A. Miller noticed adult children taking care of their maturing children as well as their aging parents. She referred to them as the “sandwich generation,” recognizing their stress from caring for two sets of people with unique and demanding needs.
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More than 30 years later, the Pew Research Center 2013 report revealed that 47 percent of adults between ages 40 and 50 with parents 65 and older were still raising children or supporting an adult child. An additional 15 percent were providing financial support to both aging parent(s) and children. With economic challenges, an increasing aging population and the pervasive belief that adult children are supposed to help their parents and their own children, this trend is growing.
About 75 percent of the sandwich generation is comprised of women who struggle to balance work, time and emotional — as well as economic — resources between aging parents, children and sometimes grandchildren. They usually have siblings who may or may not contribute to the care of their aging parents. Additionally, those siblings who do contribute to the care of aging parents do not contribute as much as these women.
Stress, anxiety and depression can result from the physical and emotional drain, as well as the economic uncertainty, sandwiched caregivers experience. These sandwiched adults may be overwhelmed by the type and amount of care required to adequately support for their loved ones. They may find themselves struggling to decide which loved one needs the greatest amount of care at any given moment. Then they may struggle with guilt and inadequacy about choosing between their loved ones.
There may also be additional challenges to this type of caregiving. Some sandwiched caregivers may find themselves struggling to make peace with parents who were dysfunctional, abusive or uncaring as parents. Others may find themselves coping with changes in wonderful parents whose dementia or Alzheimer’s leaves them almost unrecognizable. Regardless of these challenges, “sandwiched” caregivers find themselves on emotional roller coasters. They may be experiencing wonderful, humorous moments with their parents or children one minute and painful, difficult moments the next. This caregiving is rewarding, stressful and exhausting.
“Sandwiched” caregivers deal with a major shift in roles with their parents. Their conversations with parents are similar to their conversations with their children. However, their caregiving conversations with parents may be more painful and/or strange. After all, taking away a parent’s car or keys is really difficult. Warning parents to neither share their medication with friends nor take pills friends share with them is odd. It is awkward and difficult to balance their parents’ freedom while trying to convince them to bathe or see a doctor.
If one is a “sandwiched” caregiver, one may be able to garner support for parents from grandchildren and support for grandchildren from parents. Caregivers may also gather support from friends, families, websites and programs to help them deal with stress. If one is committed to becoming “sandwiched,” finding support and carving out some time for oneself is critical to being healthy.
As for the rest of us, perhaps we can offer some support and recognition for these amazing, incredible and notable caregivers who are the “sandwich generation.” Give caregivers gifts that allow them to relax for a little while. Spend some time with a “sandwiched” caregiver’s parents or children, so they can have time for themselves. This July, begin recognizing “sandwiched” caregivers for what they do. They are truly modern day champions of love, compassion, ethics and commitment.
For more information about managing caregiver stress, you can visit the American Psychological Association’s website and read “Sandwich Generation Moms Feeling the Squeeze.”