We hear and read a lot these days about the “sandwich generation,” a term describing the growing group of people who find themselves caring for both their aging parents and their own children. Because Americans are not only living longer but are also needing a higher level of care in their later years, and because people are waiting until they’re older to start families than in the past, sandwich caregivers are becoming more and more common. And it’s often a role they’re not prepared for.
Generally speaking, people choose to become parents. In most cases, they have some degree of control over the timing — they can decide when having kids best fits into their life plan. Even when their ideal timeline is accelerated or delayed, they have many months to prepare for the new addition to their family. And they enter parenthood knowing they’ll be caregivers for the next 18+ years.
Adult children who take care of their aging parents, on the other hand, may be caught off guard by having to take on responsibilities they haven’t chosen or expected. For someone who may already be busy juggling the demands of parenthood, work, a marriage or domestic partnership, and managing a household, adding a parent’s care can lead to frustration, resentment, and exhaustion.
The comment I hear most often from clients and friends who are trying to balance these multiple roles is, “I feel like I don’t even have space to breathe.” Being stretched thin doesn’t leave time to build up reserves, so it’s tough to get a break from the overwhelm. On top of that, it’s not uncommon for sandwich caregivers to feel guilty over what they’re NOT able to provide to everyone who relies on them, and that guilt exacerbates the emotional strain.
So where can this “caught in the middle” generation find that breathing space? How can they manage all of their responsibilities while maintaining their sanity? Keeping four things in mind can help.
The first and most important thing that caregivers can do is to recognize that whatever they’re feeling makes sense. It’s OK to feel frustrated, guilty, resentful, annoyed, or whatever. We’re very conditioned to want to suppress those feelings. We have well-meaning friends telling us we shouldn’t feel guilty, and we tell ourselves we should want to help the people we love. We worry that feeling impatient or angry means we’re a bad mother/father/daughter/son/person when, in reality, it just means we’re human. When we stack that self-judgment on top of our already uncomfortable feelings, we end up feeling even worse. If, instead, we’re able to tell ourselves, “I’m in a really tough situation — of course I’m annoyed!” we no longer have to waste energy on trying to deny those feelings.
The next step is to get clear on your goals. It’s so easy to get caught up in responding to what everyone needs, always prioritizing what’s urgent, without looking at the big picture. And that makes sense, because looking at the big picture takes time – time that feels nonexistent. But taking a step back to ask, “what’s the end goal here?” is crucial. When we have clarity around what’s most important, we often realize that some of the tasks that are adding to our stress aren’t actually as crucial as we’d thought they were.
Another critical thing to recognize is that no one can do it all. And that’s ok. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything for everyone. Fortunately, there are lots of resources out there. Think about what’s on the To Do list and what can be removed. It’s possible that some of the “must do’s” aren’t really essential. Among the things that do need attention, what can be delegated to someone else? Whether it’s a family member, a friend, or a paid professional, other people can help lighten the load.
And finally, it’s essential for everyone to make time for themselves every day. It’s easy for caregivers to feel like time is a luxury they absolutely cannot afford. But an extraordinary amount of time isn’t required. Any time that can be carved out in a busy schedule is fine, as long as it results in a little break. It could be walking outside and taking a few deep breaths, singing along to a favorite song in the car, savoring a nice piece of chocolate, watching a cute cat video, making a quick call to a friend… anything that provides a moment to pause and reset.
Juggling caregiving responsibilities is HARD! Because each situation is different and every individual is unique, there isn’t one ideal way of doing things that will work for everyone. While it’s important to have a support network, and it’s great to seek ideas and suggestions from fellow sandwich caregivers, it’s important to remember that this is not a contest and comparing yourself to anyone else isn’t helpful.
Instead stop and remind yourself that you’ve been dealt a tough hand, and that you’re doing the best you can. Then give yourself a big pat on the back for giving so much of yourself to the people you love.
With warm thoughts and supportive energy,