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‘Sandwich generation’ caregiving is a balancing act


Family caregivers come in a variety of forms. When it comes to caregiving for an aging loved one, most often it’s the spouse or an adult child handling the majority of the care. Caregiving is a labor of love, filled with ups and downs, highs and lows. On one hand, it’s a chance to reconnect with and “repay” an aging parent, spouse or relative for their love and attention. But caregiving is also fraught with literal and figurative heavy lifting, burnout and the feeling of being overwhelmed. This especially true if you fall into the category of a “sandwich generation” caregiver.

A balancing act

The “sandwich generation” caregivers, coined by social worker Dorothy Miller in 1981, “originally referred to younger women in their 30s and 40s who were taking care of both their children and parents.” It’s further characterized over the last several decades, as a group of people ranging from approximately age 30 to 65-plus who care for their aging parents while supporting their own children, or even grandchildren. They find themselves balancing their time caring for a parent or parents whose health and well-being is on a significant decline while simultaneously raising or supporting their young children, teens, or even college age children.

Journalist Carol Abaya continued to study and refine the term as our aging society grows and lives longer. Though quirky, her nuanced descriptors make a lot of sense.

  • Traditional – those sandwiched between aging parents who need care and/or help and their own children.
  • Club Sandwich – those in their 50s-60s sandwiched between aging parents, adult children and grandchildren, or those in their 30s-40s, with young children, aging parents and grandparents.
  • Open Faced – anyone else involved in elder care.
Matt Gallardo.jpg

Matt is the Director of Community Engagement and Coaching at Messiah Lifeways. He brings nearly 20 years of experience in counseling, advocating, and guiding older adults and caregivers through many of life’s tough decisions.

The sandwich squeeze

Most people outside the senior care industry aren’t as familiar with the sandwich generation term. But because caregiving in general is a growing challenge, the additional stressors that this sandwich group faces needs more recognition and support. If we follow the subgroups from Carol Abaya, caregivers in the “open faced” or the conventional cohort will indeed face many challenges as caregivers. Yet these challenges are generally coming from one direction. Those in the “Traditional” or “Club Sandwich” groups have challenges bearing down on them from both directions.

Conventional family caregivers spend an average of 24.4 hours per week providing care1. Now just imagine a sandwich generation caregiver who still works full-time. Now add several teenagers, who need rides to soccer or swim practice, need fed and need their “never ending stream” of laundry done, needs to go shopping or needs a ride to work. You get the picture. You can imagine this would make for a pretty stressful lifestyle.

Recognition and support

To help this particular segment of caregivers, we need to shed more light and recognize their taxing journeys. Equally, we must reach out to them and offer them support, insight and resources to make sandwich generation caregiving less of a burden. There are lots of resources, options and advice out there. A few suggestions include:

  • Hold a family meeting – set goals and expectations, create a schedule, and hold others accountable.
  • Communicate – open and honest dialogue is important to any relationship.
  • Accept and seek assistance – ask for help from family members, friends or neighbors. One day you can return the favor.
  • Join a support group – no one knows what you’re going through better than fellow caregivers.
  • Hire non-medical home care or consider an adult day program or personal care home placement
  • Access local resources – reach out to your local Area Agency on Aging or other social services agencies. There are some income and needs based financial assistance or grants that can help cover the cost of home care and home modifications.

Most importantly, take care of yourself. You cannot be there for your kids or a parent if you are not physically, mentally, and emotionally well.

1National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP. (2015) Caregiving in the U.S.