It is widely known that the United States population over age 65 is increasing at a rapid rate. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 65-and-older population increased by approximately one-third between 2010 and 2020. This so-called “silver tsunami” has created a critical need for aging-related resources, services, and care to assist elders with their activities of daily living. So far, the growth in this sector of the population has outpaced what local, state, and federally funded aging service programs can accommodate, and many families in need encounter barriers in accessing these resources, including strict eligibility criteria, lengthy waitlists, and underallocation of services. As such, many members of the younger generation find themselves providing unpaid caregiving to aging family members and friends.
The term “sandwich generation” applies to people (typically younger Boomers and Gen Xers) who are simultaneously caring for an aging relative, as well as for their own children. They are “sandwiched” in the middle of these two generations. Being part of this generation poses some unique challenges, including logistics to manage, tricky interpersonal dynamics, and family role shifts to navigate. In addition to the constant nature of parenting – such as meals and housework, school assignments and teacher conferences – sandwich generation caregivers are also helping an aging relative through activities of daily living. This could be meal preparation, shopping, transportation, medication management, appointments, housework, and financial management.
On top of providing support to the generations above and below them, they are often also maintaining a romantic relationship with a spouse or partner, which many caregivers find can sometimes take a backseat compared to the more “immediate” day to day needs of aging loved ones and children who may be completely dependent upon the caregiver.
It can be difficult to navigate all of these dynamics, in addition to juggling your own life, professional responsibilities, and health. Many sandwich generation caregivers experience stress and burnout, and their own self-care falls by the wayside because it feels like there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. It’s hard to find time for yourself. Many experience their own health challenges as a result of chronic stress, reduce their hours or leave the workforce entirely, and experience strain in their interpersonal relationships.
In my years of working with aging families, one thing I have often heard caregivers say is how frequently the people in their lives call them saints, angels, or superheroes for the things they do to support their loved ones. Most of these caregivers say that being put up on a pedestal in this way feels wrong to them. Although these comments are well-intentioned, caregivers often feel isolated by them. They just don’t see themselves as superheroes, angels, or saints - rather, they are just doing what they need to for the people they care about. They are human, no more and no less than they were before they became caregivers. There is immense beauty in that - the things ordinary people can do for the people they love.
If you are a family caregiver - especially one in the sandwich generation - it is critical that you take care of your own needs, health, and wellbeing. There are numerous cliches to this effect. You can’t pour from an empty cup. Put on your oxygen mask first before helping the person next to you. Whichever figures of speech ring true for you, it is likely that you will be better able to serve the people in your life if you are tending to your own needs as well. Even more than that, you are worth taking care of yourself simply for the fact that you have value outside of just what you can do for other people. Setting aside an hour weekly or biweekly to participate in counseling is a wonderful opportunity to proactively manage your mental and emotional wellbeing, manage your stress, and receive nonjudgmental support and care. It is a way to find richness and meaning in very challenging, human life circumstances. With self-care, support, and balance, many people look back at the caregiving seasons of their lives as having been - in addition to challenging and stressful - also very rewarding, full of purpose, and an experience characterized by deep love and tenderness.
If you recognize yourself or anyone you know in this post, please know that there is support available for you. In my counseling practice, I work collaboratively with my clients who are either in the sandwich generation or simply caring for a loved one to identify their own personal strengths and abilities - like compassion, resourcefulness, and creativity - that can be drawn on to help them in their caregiving experience. I also help clients establish healthy boundaries, effective communication strategies, and a regular self-care practice as strategies to maintain their own wellbeing and manage their stress level. Additionally, most of my work with clients who are either caregivers or in the sandwich generation involves an element of processing grief - whether related to a loved one’s illness or other physical changes that may accompany the aging process, changes in family roles and dynamics, or simply the departure from life before caregiving. Attending to these things on a regular basis and making the caregiver’s health and wellbeing a priority too helps ensure the safety of the family as a whole, and provides a way for the caregiver to honor themselves as well.