If you've ever juggled getting your preteen to soccer practice and your mother to her doctor's appointment, chances are you are part of the Sandwich Generation. The phrase traditionally describes middle-aged individuals who find themselves simultaneously caring for aging parents and dependent children; however, demographic and economic shifts have broadened the term to include those caring for aging relatives and adult children.
Navigating life as part of the sandwich generation is challenging. Sandwiched adults may be drained of essential resources like money, time, and energy. They may also worry about who will take over when they're ready to take their place as the top slice of bread and whether they will receive similar support when needed.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 44 million unpaid family caregivers in the United States, and about a quarter of those caregivers are part of the sandwich generation. Navigating complex challenges requires support daily for caregivers.
The sandwich generation includes middle-aged people who support aging parents and growing children. This generation is "sandwiched" between caring for their aging parents, who may be ill, struggle with activities of daily living, or need financial support, and their children, who require financial, physical, and emotional support.
The expected growth in the number of people in the sandwich generation is one reason why it's crucial to understand better how family caregivers manage competing duties. As the population of senior citizens increases over the next few years, more individuals will balance parenting and eldercare responsibilities. The sandwich generation has to hold down jobs, manage personal relationships, and attend to their health concerns. Increasing awareness about this phenomenon helps caregivers to make decisions with forethought and clarity.
It was sometimes different from this. The term "Sandwich Generation" first appeared in the late 70s but didn't become mainstream until the end of the century. It was an almost unheard-of phenomenon due to shorter lifespans and different family structures.
Before the 20th century, children supporting parents was a rare occurrence. While people did make it to older ages for much of history, the average life expectancy hovered between 30 and 40 years.
All that changed as we entered the 1900s. Modern living meant improved hygiene, increased access to preventative care, and an abrupt change in how countries engaged in warfare. Suddenly, babies had a greater chance of survival when they were born, and people, in general, were less likely to die from common diseases or on battlefields.
That said, the shift from living an average of 40 years to an average of 80 didn't happen overnight. For a good portion of the 20th century, shorter life expectancies meant middle-aged children often didn't have their parents with them. The support they were expected to give was limited in amount and time, which meant they could focus on raising their children and saving for their twilight years.
But by the time Boomers began raising their families, lifespans had extended significantly. The next generation, Gen X, suddenly found themselves in uncharted territory, with no one to model the new course. How were they meant to take care of their children and their parents, especially as the latter group aged into their 80s and 90s and needed increased maintenance due to the chronic conditions associated with significantly advanced age?
Around the time we began living longer, another significant change further compounded the challenges sandwiched adults face. The reality is as countries develop, fertility declines. This phenomenon occurs for many reasons, but the result is the same: a radically changed family structure.
Before, the family could be described as a pyramid when life expectancies were shorter and fertility rates higher. At any given time, a family typically had roughly three living generations, with two grandparents supported by several children and many children of their own. This spread the work and financial burden caregiving created among more people, making it easier to sustain.
However, now, the stretch is increasingly felt with people living longer and having fewer children. Scholars describe the changed structure as a beanpole, with more generations stacked on top of one another but less support under each one. A sandwiched adult might be the only one caring for two older parents simultaneously - they may even care for their parents and their parents' siblings if their aunts and uncles have no children or spouses of their own. Meanwhile, their children are more likely to be dependents for longer, with over 50% of adults in their 20s living with their parents.
Balancing young family life with caring for elderly relatives creates the biggest challenges for the sandwich generation. Family caregivers find themselves suffering from burnout, stress, and sometimes guilt. A single person can't meet all the needs of children and elderly adults. In some families, siblings share the burden, or extended family members participate in care. However, with families increasingly moving farther and farther away, often, one sibling finds themselves responsible for caring for their parents and children without help.
In some cases, elderly parents resent their family caregivers. Why? Often they feel that their adult children impede their independence. In some cases, fights, from medical care to financial issues, cause a big rift. Depending on the circumstance, some adult children find it helpful to keep communication open and transparent or have the help of a third party like a doctor or financial advisor help mediate their parent's needs.
The Sandwich Generation finds themselves struggling to balance multiple needs. The added responsibilities cause financial problems, emotional stress, and possibly increased medical costs. Time away from family and work might cause issues. When an emergency strikes, they must choose between their children and their parents. It is no wonder burnout can become an issue.
As a Sandwich Generation caregiver, plan out what you need to manage all your responsibilities. Prioritize yourself and your health, both mental and physical. Create systems that work for you that allow you to stay organized, track progress, shift roles quickly and empower others in the family to get involved when they can. Set realistic goals and expectations, allowing yourself plenty of flexibility around juggling family caregiving responsibilities.
Familiarize yourself with legal documents to help protect you and your family, such as powers of attorney, living wills, and advance directives. A family attorney can help navigate potential conflicts between family members. Consider all your options regarding sources of assistance so that you will be ready if and when they become necessary.
Managing your parent's medical needs will be your top priority as a family caregiver. Medical conditions involve more than doctor appointments or making sure they take their medicine. Medical needs might include:
Careful planning, delegating what you can, and balancing self-care with your family's needs. Sometimes, family caregiving can be shared with a professional home health aide or advocate. If elderly parents still live in their homes, the burden often falls heavily on adult children. Finding ways to take advantage of 24-hour home care or medical transportation services can help adult children manage. Medicare and Medicaid may cover medical transportation to and from doctor's appointments. Medication delivery services and telehealth help seniors manage their independence and stay healthy. Some family caregiving expenses can be deducted when you file for taxes, especially if the care recipient lives with you.
Budgeting for your family's and your parent's needs will help keep finances stable. Consider what benefits your parent may have. Look into programs that offer helpful financial services. Work with a financial advisor to manage expenses. Prioritize expenses. This might be challenging. If you have children with a disability and care for your parents or have health issues, you might need to decide which takes priority. Additionally, consider work obligations.
Family caregivers often give up to 25% of their income to the care recipient. In many families, that amount leads to financial difficulties. The sandwich generation may need more money to save for retirement, family vacations, or housing. That is why it is essential to research every type of support possible so your young family and your parents can have the best life. Find helpful financial and practical help:
Many organizations support daily caregivers.
Emotional support from family, friends, and professionals is essential for helping manage family caregiving. There are many resources to support these caregivers in their complex roles. They face unique challenges that lead to stress, anxiety, and depression, including financial strain, difficulty balancing responsibilities, guilt, feeling overwhelmed or stretched too thin, and not having enough time for themselves.
Take advantage of digital health tools that make it easier for you to do this independently. Partner with organizations or care providers offering respite care, transportation, and home safety assessments to provide added support. Build a supportive community by connecting with others and attending caregiver support groups online and in person. The sandwich generation supports their elderly parents and their children simultaneously, which can be incredibly stressful, especially without proper emotional support. Reach out for help and talk to others who understand the stressors of the sandwich generation.