A Look Inside the Sandwich Generation

by Claire Yezbak Fadden

The week I placed my 82 year old mother in an assisted living retirement home was the same week my five-year-old son started kindergarten. The decision to move Mom out of her home was made after months of agonizing discussions with my brothers and hours researching her options, being very reluctant to take any of Mom’s independence away from her.

As time went on, it became more and more apparent that she wasn’t able to properly and safely care for herself the way she had done for decades. We were all in agreement that Mom couldn’t live alone anymore. But what was the best solution? There were many options to take into account. We discussed everything from Mom moving in with one of us ( a choice she would never go for) to having someone live with her to moving her into a residential care facility.

More and more adult children are faced with this same situation. Sandwiched between generations, couples in their 30's and 40's, still in the throes of raising their families, are having to make decisions for aging parents. In fact, nearly one in four households in the U.S. are caring for an older parent or relative. We are descriptively called "The Sandwich Generation" - feeling pushed from two sides -- caring for our own children and finding ourselves a parent to Mom or Dad.

After months of investigation, we found the perfect assisted-living facility. Mom has her own room, all of her medications are administered, she had daily interaction with lots of people, her meals are provided for and there is someone available 24 hours a day if she needs anything. The environment is stimulating and the residents are cared for lovingly. I wanted to provide all of these things for my mother. With the challenges of raising three children and caring for a husband, I wasn’t able to do all of them myself. For my situation, residential care was an answer to a prayer.

Becoming your parent’s parent may seem like a tremendous mountain to climb. You may feel that you are all done. But there are millions of baby boomers providing both emotional and financial support to their parents, while raising their own children. There are many local and national resources to make the quest easier. Take the time and do the research. You’ll then be able to make informed choices. After all, mom and dad made the best choices for us when we couldn’t do it for ourselves. Here’s how to return the favor.

Where to Start

Your choice of what type of elder care to utilize will depend on what your parent is capable of doing. The choices are widespread and varied. So your first step is to evaluate where your parent is. For example, if your mom can do light housekeeping, but needs help with heavy tasks, all you may need to do is contact a local service agency. They’ll give you some names of groups who provide this type of help. However, if your Dad cannot drive and you’re concerned about his ability to use public transportation, you may want to contact the Red Cross about their Handy-Trans service.

A great resource in learning to ask the right questions is the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons). You can request "A Checklist of Concerns/Resources for Caregivers" and "A Path for Caregivers" by writing to AARP Fulfillment, 601 E. Street, NW, Washington, DC 20049. These two brochures will give you a good start.

If your parents have come to a place in their lives where they are unable to remain in their current living situation without some changes, then it’s time to consider your options. Everything from adult day care, residential care and nursing homes to home care, home-delivered meals or moving in with a relative are possibilities.

Caring for the Caregiver

In her book, The Complete Eldercare Planner (Hyperion, 1997), Joy Loverde devotes an entire chapter to caregivers, with a focus on taking care of the caregiver. Loverde notes: "According to Children of Aging Parents, Inc., family members provide 80 percent of the care of aging relatives. They do so without pay, often with little or no assistance, while coping with competing responsibilities of family, work and personal interest".

Adult children frequently feel guilty, frustrated, powerless and torn between caring for their parents and their responsibilities to the family they are raising. There is nothing unusual, mean-spirited or bad about those feelings. "All caregivers feel frustrated, guilty, overworked and alone," says Pam Erickson, R.N., founder of the Professional Respite Care, Inc. Erickson says that it’s best to accept your feelings. She advises caregivers to look for early warning signs of trouble, such as persistent irritability, sleep problems, depression, anxiety and temper flare-ups. "Prioritize tasks. Don’t feel like everything must be done today. Take breaks. Give yourself a daily change of scene," says Erickson.

It’s not uncommon for a caregiver (usually a woman) to spend nearly 18 hours a week caring for an aging parent. Loverde says that "scheduled family meetings and telephone conversations between every member of the family is a practical way to address eldercare issues and delegate responsibilities evenly". She says the amount of help we receive from other siblings is directly related to the help we ask for. "Be specific about the kind of help you expect from family members. Don’t beat around the bush. Say "I need your help and this is what I need...".

Ideas for Long-Distance Caregiving

Even if your aging parent doesn’t live nearby, there are still many ways you can be involved in their care (and lift some of the burden of the caretaking sibling).

  • Be the accountant. Most businesses, utilities and merchants will send the bill to your address. Set up a separate checking account complete with the amount to cover the regular monthly bills. Offer to keep track of all important papers that will be needed come tax time. Prepare or have the taxes prepared.
  • Be the secretary. Keep a mailing list and send out holiday greetings from your mom or dad. You can also help with buying birthday cards (maybe a month’s worth at a time).
  • Be the information gatherer. Making phone calls to find the right information is time consuming, but a job that can be done from anywhere. Provide help and resources to get your parent’s legal affairs in order or updated.
  • When you’re in town, take some of the load off the main caregiver by offering to do routine jobs-grocery shopping, yard work, car maintenance.

Original article appeared in the October, 1998 Sacramento Parent Magazine. Reprinted with permission from the author and San Diego Family Magazine.