Balancing Act: Caught in the Middle

Increasingly, women are sandwiched—caring for an aging parent as well as parenting their own children

By Nora Isaacs

I am visiting my father in his home care, singing him songs and feeding him chocolate pudding. Yet my mind is elsewhere; I have exactly 10 minutes before I’ll be late to pick up my youngest child from middle school, stop home to get his equipment, and drop him off at jujitsu. Then back home to make dinner, off to my older kid’s jazz concert, and since it’s the end of the month, pay my father’s monthly bills before going to bed.

Caring for both school-age children and a parent 65 or older, I fall firmly within the population known as the Sandwich Generation. And I am not alone. About a quarter of US adults (23 percent) are now part of this generation. 

This population is growing and evolving with the times. First, the number of people 65 and older is increasing. Second, the pandemic has shifted the demographics of the Sandwich Generation, “causing it to become increasingly younger, more female, and more diverse, which has differing implications for those who are younger and in need of a long-term solution versus those who are closer to or in retirement,” according to a report from New York Life.

Unsurprisingly, members of the Sandwich Generation experience high levels of financial, emotional, and physical stress. And this hits women most directly. “Care work has always been associated with women, and disproportionately women of color,” says Ai-jen Poo, executive director of Caring Across Generations, which works to elevate caregiving’s value and support. In the current paradigm, caregiving is undervalued and often extremely isolating. At the same time, caregiving is the engine of our economy. “Caregiving is a universal need,” Poo reminds us. “No one should have to manage these responsibilities alone.”

Feeling the squeeze

Multigenerational caregivers have an enormous amount on their plates. Overextended, crunched for time, dealing with adolescent angst, parental health struggles, and the financial stress of paying for college and saving for retirement. Driving the kids to school, driving the parents to medical appointments. Grappling with the middle school attendance office and Medicare. In fact, Sandwich Generation caregivers spend an average of 22 hours a week caring for someone while often simultaneously juggling work.

Part of this impossible math involves societal forces. In the United States, we lack adequate paid family medical leave and universal childcare. Eldercare is expensive and increasingly complicated. Of course, care work is traditionally “female” work, and thus devalued. All of this creates intense pressure for women in low-income families in particular. In order to help meet the needs of children, elders, and caregivers, Poo’s organization operates on several fronts, including working toward policies that support women through affordable and quality childcare, paid family leave, and affordable long-term care. In addition, she and her team are advocates for caregiving as a valued profession that is well-compensated and enables caregivers also to care for themselves.

“Women are stretched to the point of breaking,” says Poo. “We need a new and comprehensive approach to care in this country, especially for women who bear the brunt of our lack of infrastructure.”

Managing Sandwich Generation stress

Given the circumstances, it’s not surprising that nearly 40 percent of mothers aged 35 to 54 report extreme levels of stress (compared with 29 percent of those 18 to 34 years old and 25 percent of mothers older than 55). 

A little stress is normal and natural, says Christy Yates, a coach and the author of Building a Legacy of Love: Thriving in the Sandwich Generation. But the state of constant stress, she says, can damage our bodies and our spirits. And though it’s easy to make everyone else’s needs a priority—while ignoring your own—that isn’t good for anyone. Here are a few suggestions from the experts on how to manage stress.

Check in

Sandwich caregivers have triggers coming from all angles, and it’s important to identify what is really stressing you out. This requires slowing down enough to notice how you are doing—the sensations in your body and the emotions you are feeling. Once you have identified the triggers, try deep breathing, meditating, or journaling.

Admit the range of emotions

Yates emphasizes acknowledging that parenting children and caregiving for an aging or ailing older person are not the same thing. “It’s like being caught between sunrise and sunset,” she says. “Our children embody possibility and a rising sunrise, while our aging parent might embody a bittersweet sunset, so we feel all the emotions those two normal and natural processes bring. We learn it is possible to hold immense joy and utter grief in our hearts at the same time.” This acknowledgment leaves a little more room for self-acceptance.

Supply self-care

Self-care is crucial for all people—and in particular those who are taking care of both kids and parents. Even when you are convinced you couldn’t possibly fit in another thing, give it a try. Exercise, go out with friends, give yourself a manicure. And don’t forget to focus on healthy habits at home, such as getting enough sleep, stretching at the end of a long day, or cutting back on doom scrolling.

Delegate

You might be convinced that you have to run to the nursing home to make sure your dad is taking his medication, or to school to drop off the lunch your child left sitting on the counter. Think twice. Choosing a different option might involve letting go of control, but might also result in more balance for yourself. Call your dad’s residence and ask the nurse’s aide for a medication report. Resist the urge to drop off lunch, so your child can learn consequences.

Build a “care squad”

Ai-jen Poo advocates enlisting people you trust and love for help. So when you have to take your mother to a doctor’s appointment, or you are too tired to cook, you will have ready-made resources to call on. It takes intention to build such a squad, but backup counts in times like those. In addition to including family and friends, the support circle can be widened to your larger community.

Lead with love

Anyone with young kids will agree that it’s common for people—both known and random—to tell you to enjoy every moment because the time goes so fast. I try to remember this advice as I go about my days, not only with my kids but also with my parent. It’s not always easy.

Like so many of life’s challenges, these situations bring opportunities. One is the chance to model intergenerational respect and love in the care you provide for your elders while your kids observe that relationship. “As a parent, you will witness your child’s depth of compassion in real time, which is precious to behold,” says Yates. Another opportunity is the chance to develop resilience and empathy. “You will discover how strong and intelligent you are in ways you might not have otherwise identified,” she says.

Many people are working on shifting the cultural paradigm for Sandwichers. I like to think I’m working on that shift on a personal level through gratitude and presence. While shepherding my kids’ lives—full as they are of promise—and simultaneously honoring a life whose light is diminishing, I find gratitude and presence are the keys to countering the demands of my Sandwich status. After all, it goes by so fast. DW

Nora Isaacs is an author, writer, and editor who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and focuses on health, well-being, and sustainability. 



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