Drive the kids to school. Head to work for a day full of meetings. Use your lunch hour to take your mother to the doctor. Pick your daughter up from field hockey practice, your son from soccer and the laundry from the cleaners. Make dinner, help with homework. Field a call from Mom about her bank account. It’s 9:30 p.m., do you know where your day has gone?
Although the daily grind causes stress, anxiety and burnout for Americans across the country, the unique characteristic for the person speeding through the day described above lies in whom they are assisting; not just their dependent children and not just their aging parent, but both—at the same time.
Of course, caring for children and aging parents is not new. Nurturing dependent offspring and supporting members of your family, tribe or clan as they become frailer is an ancient concept. However, there is an astoundingly large segment of Baby Boomers, known as the “sandwich generation,” that is experiencing these responsibilities concurrently. As a society, we’re still learning how to help those in the midst of “sandwiching” cope with their responsibilities.
“In a collective sense, the term [sandwich generation] has been used to describe the middle-aged generation who have elderly parents and dependent children” (Pierret). Although Charles Pierret’s study for the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics includes people ages 45 to 56 in the sandwich generation, Baby Boomers beyond this age bracket are also experiencing this scenario of providing support for children and aging parents at once. Why are Boomers, whether officially classified as “Sandwichers” or not, facing this phenomenon? I’ll discuss some integral reasons here, the one’s I’ve most in my experience working with seniors and their families.
Increased life expectancy means that our parents are living longer, requiring more care from family members and professional caregivers. In fact, the group of people ages 85 and better, termed oldest-old by gerontologists, “[i]n the next decades…will be the fastest-growing age group” (Pittock, Bouchard and Vierck). There will be more adult children facing this multi-faceted care-giving scenario, especially as the Baby Boomers age.
Increasing numbers of men and women are focusing on their careers prior to starting families. This results in caring for younger, dependent children and older parents, when previous generations were caring for their aging parents after their children had grown, or, at least, were more independent.
Boomers are also being sandwiched financially, as they support their children and their parents, in order to help both their dependent cohorts achieve and maintain as much independence as possible. I’ve seen so many families financially support their senior loved ones as they transition to retirement communities, for example, while they also cover the costs associated with sending a child to college or graduate school, or while they start their career.
What to do?
A care-giver, defined by Caregiving in the U.S., a study by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP, is someone “who provides unpaid care to another who requires help with activities of daily living” (Pittock), such as bathing, grooming, dressing, toileting, eating, and transferring (which means moving from one location to another, like a chair to a bed). I feel it’s appropriate to extend the definition of care giver to include emotional and financial support. Unpaid (often related) care givers may help a parent cope with the loss of loved ones, a social role (such as spouse or sibling), or physiological changes; as discussed before, they also offer help to their senior loved ones financially, covering cost of medications, living expenses and more. Providing transportation to medical appointments, help with grocery shopping or medication management are also common forms of assistance, which fall into the category of “IADL”s, or “instrumental activities of daily living. If you combine all these responsibilities with the everyday routine of their own busy lives, it’s a never-ending struggle for caregivers—Sandwichers– to keep everything (and everyone) healthy and cared for.
Our care-giver described above is a professional, trying to balance work and personal obligations; in speaking to family members throughout my career, I hear from them that they cling to the routine of chaos—well, anticipated chaos—in order to maintain their abilities to care for kids and aging parents and tend to job-related duties. When a wrench is thrown into the works, such as a crisis with an aging parent, it throws everything off-balance, turning every-day tumult into an unmanageable maze of confusion and contradictions, family dynamics and promises made. In making important care-giving decisions for a parent or other elderly relative, it’s vital to realize that you don’t have to handle this on your own. There are professionals of all kinds willing and available to help you make informed decisions about managing care and arrangements of all kinds, so you can take actions with which you and your parent will feel comfortable.
Does the decision you have to make encompass more than one area of your loved one’s life, or is it particular to a financial, legal, medical or social need? If you know you need to establish a Power of Attorney or find a new physician, you’d seek the assistance of a particular type of professional, such as an elderlaw attorney or geriatrician. However, if you have a feeling something needs to change for your parent, but you’re not sure what, you may look for someone trained to help you make plans in a variety of areas.
If you know exactly what needs to be accomplished, for example, the drawing up of a Power of Attorney document, an advance directive or living will, or if you have other legal concerns, consider hiring an elderlaw attorney. What’s the difference, you ask, between an elderlaw attorney and your family lawyer? Elderlaw attorneys specialize in handling the legal issues and concerns facing seniors in particular. An estate planning for an 85-year-old will look different than one for a 40-year-old. The wishes of that same 85-year-old client, outlined in a living will may look different from that 50-year-old’s. Mature adults face unique challenges as they review and plan for the future. It’s essential, when searching for a credentialed professional, to find someone who understands these specific issues. (In some cases, these professionals have additional certification to reflect this knowledge and understanding).
But what if you aren’t sure what your next steps are? For some, they are facing a medical crisis with their senior parent. For others, mom or dad may not be “the same” or you have specific concerns about their ability to live alone and/or care for themselves. If this is the case, consider hiring a senior resource consultant or geriatric care manager. These professionals have well-rounded knowledge on a variety of subjects and issues, and can help you locate, arrange for and monitor services and solutions for your senior loved one. They tend to be compassionate individuals with a passion for helping those in just your situation. If you believe you need referrals to a variety of credentialed professionals and aren’t sure where to start, or you don’t know how to help your aging parent, senior resource consultants and geriatric care managers may be heaven-sent.
Of course, if you are a DIY-er, there are a plethora of organizations that can help you locate the answers you need. Area Agencies on Aging (AoA), and other issue-specific groups and professional organizations are often helpful in providing support and guidance. For example, if your parent suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, visiting the Alzheimer’s Association web site, www.alz.org, is a fantastic place to find information about the illness itself, as well as information on issues that may arise during the course of the disease. Organizations such as these may also list locations and time for support group meetings for yourself and other family members, to cope with the progression of your loved one’s disease. The phone book and Internet are a great way to find the common and not-so-common organizations that can assist you.
Take some time for yourself. This is a mandate, not something to consider doing when you have time. Whether you’re a “sandwicher” or otherwise someone who is caring for an aging loved one, make sure you keep yourself healthy (physically and emotionally). Get enough sleep, eat right, take the time to exercise and relax. Find a support group for care-givers, such as Children of Aging Parents or another group more specific to your concern. Find some respite for yourself; hire a professional caregiver for a few hours a week so you can run errands, or spend time with friends, without having to worry about your loved one’s well-being while you are out. Or, if you prefer, enlist other family members to take over for a few hours a week so you can focus on yourself for a while. It will improve your relationship with the person for whom you are caring, as well as help you maintain the balance so desperately needed when managing a situation like this.
The bottom line is: there is help available. Don’t feel as though you must struggle through on your own (as so many people do). Find professionals who can help you get organized and feel confident about decisions you need to make. Speak up and enlist your other family members—siblings, for example—to participate in the process of caring for your parent. Surround yourself with a team of people who want to (and can) help you accomplish your goals. You may still be sandwiched, but at least you’ll feel more at-ease with the situation.
Jessica Strom is a Certified Senior Advisor (CSA)® and Principal Resource Consultant for Beacon Senior Resources in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, area. She helps senior clients make confident decisions that will maximize their independence and improve their quality of life through a variety of assessment, planning, search and referral services. For more information, contact Jessica at (267) 390-4193 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pierret, Charles. “The ‘sandwich generation’: women caring for parents and children.” Bureau of Labor
Statistics. Sep. 2006. 29 February 2008. http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2006/09/art1full.pdf.
Pittock, Edwin, Norm Bouchard and Elizabeth Vieck. Working with Seniors: Health, Financial, and Social
Issues. Society of Certified Senior Advisors, 2005.
The National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP. “Caregiving in America.” April 2004. 29 February 2008.