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Mary's afternoons are predictably unpredictable. This afternoon, she has to leave work a little early to take her son to ball practice. On the way there, she'll pick up her daughter from a friend's house. Afterwards, she'll stop at the pharmacy to pick up her dad's prescriptions, then to the store to get the few groceries he needs. After dropping off dad's stuff and doing a little cleaning for him, she makes it home with the kids, fixes dinner and tries to relax with her husband without thinking about the extra effort she'll have to put in tomorrow at work to make up for leaving early today.
Does any of this sound familiar? It might if yours is one of the estimated 9.4 million American families with both children and elders who depend on the generation between them for care and support. This "sandwich generation" is a relatively recent phenomenon in a society that, for decades, has stressed that young adults leave home as soon as possible and get as far away from their parents as possible to raise their own families. But today, the older generation is living longer, more active lives, and many families are seeing the benefits of maintaining ties and blending the generations.
Members of the sandwich generation often struggle to balance the competing priorities of elder care, child care and their jobs. A large number of folks in this group find themselves at the peak of their careers and looking forward to their own eventual retirement.
The average "SandGen-er" is 35 to 64 years old. Some still have small children at home, with younger, healthy parents living not far from them. Others have children in high school or college, and older, more frail parents nearby or living with them who need varying degrees of day-to-day help. Being sandwiched in the middle brings a lot of pressure, but there are ways to cope and even benefit from the situation. Many SandGen-ers feel blessed that their children and their parents are able to build a relationship, and some feel closer to their parents at this stage of life than ever before.
Successful SandGen-ers have reliable support networks. These include parents of their children's friends - responsible adults on whom they can call to pick them up from school, take them to practice or who can just give the kids a place to "crash." They also build relationships with mom and dad's friends - people who can keep tabs on them and will let them know if they suspect a need isn't being met. Support networks also include spouses, siblings, co-workers and others going through similar situations. Looking to others to help bear the workload of multigenerational caregiving helps you build relationships and friendships that can reduce stress.
SandGen-ers have to learn how to let things go. You have too much to do to spend extra time trying to be the perfect son or daughter, the perfect parent, the perfect employee or the perfect housekeeper. Caregiving and parenting do not mean doing everything for your loved ones. Give your children the independence they need to grow and develop, and don't take on tasks for your parents before they need you to. Learn to catch yourself before you take on more responsibility than you can reasonably handle.
Finally, watch out for things that can compromise your ability to care for your family, such as alcohol or drug use, poor diet and lack of exercise. Getting adequate sleep and successfully working through emotional issues also will help keep you on top of your game, and keep debilitating stress at bay.
Employers are starting to recognize and respond to the challenges employees in these situations may face, and the impact that this dual-caregiving role can have on business. They are introducing support programs and policies that take the needs of their staff into account while boosting retention and productivity. Some examples include on-site child care, referral services and support seminars. But SandGen-ers are least likely to take advantage of these supports, either because their employers don't offer them or haven't done enough to make employees aware or them, or because they fear that taking advantage of such supports may reflect badly on them as employees.
Caregivers who seek help, including those in the sandwich generation, report lower levels of depression, anxiety and anger and higher levels of satisfaction with their family and work lives.