The term ‘sandwich generation’ refers to those that care and/or support both their parents and their children at the same time. This can be practically, financially, emotionally – or all three. Typically, those doing the caring are in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, and it isn’t unusual for them to have grandchildren, in-laws, or other elderly relatives to look after too.
The sandwich generation isn’t a new phenomenon; multi-generational families have been around for years, sometimes with all generations living under one roof. In many cultures, they still are – though, as time’s gone on, it’s become more common for families to live apart.
However, a key reason why the sandwich generation is continuing to grow (and why multi-generational families are ending up back together in the same household), is because people are now living longer than ever before. In the UK, women are now living to the average age of 83.1 and men to the average age of 79.3.
What’s interesting is that although we’re living longer – due to improved sanitation and medical advancements – we aren’t necessarily living healthier lives. So, it’s not uncommon for people to find themselves caring for elderly parents for a decade or more.
On top of this, children are living at home for longer – often into their 20s and 30s. Some head off to university, but then return after completing their studies or after the break up of a relationship. This is usually due to soaring rent prices and the high cost of living alone. So not only are sandwich situations becoming more common, but they’re going on for many more years.
While it’s only natural that you may want to be there to care for and support your family, trying to balance everyone’s needs can be stressful. So it’s important for carers and supporters to take care of their own physical and mental health too.
Below, we’ll look more closely at how you can balance the needs of your parent(s), children (and even grandchildren), while finding ways to cope yourself.
How can I balance my own needs with those of my parents and children?
Let go of guilt and look for proactive solutions instead
When we’re younger and we think of caring for our parent(s) later in life, we might assume that we’ll always be closeby. In some cases, this might be true (and they might even be living with you) but, in many cases, people end up living some distance away from their parent(s) – perhaps even in another country.
When this happens, it’s natural to feel guilty for not being closer, and to wish you could be there to support them. But if you can’t physically be there, or you can but are struggling, then it’s important not to beat yourself up.
Instead, try to find out what support services are available locally. Arranging help around the home and with things like getting to medical appointments and shopping, are just some examples of the support offered by care services. The care section of our site has more tips and advice on this.
If another family member is the primary carer for your elderly parent(s), then perhaps now and then you could offer to give them some respite – either by inviting your parent(s) to stay with you for a while or organising a trip to go and stay there yourself. A change of scenery and/or company can often be a positive thing for everyone involved.
Alternatively, if there are other family members who’re in a better position to help, such as your own adult children, then perhaps they could go and stay with their grandparents for a while to lend a hand.
Find ways to connect with elderly parents on more than just a practical level
Caring for elderly parents won’t just focus on the physical aspects of the care – such as cooking and housework – but on the mental aspects too. When you have a lot to think about and organise, it can be easy to overlook this and forget what it used to be like to just sit and enjoy dinner with your parent(s) or to have a laugh together. But this time together, where you can just be parent and child (rather than parent and carer), is important for your relationship.
This could mean taking time to just sit and talk to your parent(s) or going out for a drive or lunch. If getting out is difficult, then perhaps you could do something at home together like jigsaw puzzles, surfing the internet, or learning new skills (a new language, for example).
If you can’t get to see your parent(s), then regular phone or video calls will almost always be appreciated. If it’s been a while since your children have spoken to their grandparents, then it’s worth encouraging them to get in touch too. Or perhaps you could send letters or small gifts – just little things to make them smile.
The internet is also a great way to help them stay connected. If they’re not currently online, then you could also help with setting up their broadband. This is something that can be arranged at a distance if need be and will not only help them to keep in touch, but can give them a greater sense of independence and control.
Consider all care options for elderly parents
When looking at what care and support your parent(s) might need, it’s worth looking at all the options – including whether it’s practical or possible for them to move in with you and how this will affect other members of your household.
To take everyone’s views into account, it’s best to hold a family meeting to discuss the situation first. For more on this, check out the article about 6 things to consider before moving an elderly parent into your home.
Other options could include live-in care, overnight care, or convalescent care. To learn more about the different types of care, it’s worth having a read of our article here.
Manage others’ expectations of you, and encourage togetherness where possible
If you’re caring for elderly parents and you have children or grandchildren (of any age) that need your attention too, then it’s normal to feel torn. This can be the case whether you’re caring for a younger child who needs feeding, help with homework, and to be collected from school. Or, whether you have teenage or grown-up children who may need support with finances, raising their own children, or the direction of their life and career.
When it comes to striking a balance between giving support to your parent(s) and to your children, patience and understanding is key. If you can’t be there to pick up your grandchild from school sometimes because you have to get an elderly parent to their hospital appointments, then it’s important to communicate this to your child – and to let them know that you’re doing your best.
Similarly, if you have to arrange extra care support for an elderly parent because you simply can’t cope on your own, then it’s important to explain to your parent(s) that you’re not doing this because you don’t want to be there for them – but because you feel both of you would benefit from the extra help.
It can also help to try to get your parents and children together where possible, so that no one feels left out (and this can also help you if you’re feeling torn). Grandparents and grandchildren often have a special relationship; one that can often be overlooked until it’s too late. So encouraging time together can be positive for everyone involved.
Older/adult children may also be able to help support elderly grandparents. Simple activities like visiting them for a chat and a cup of tea or doing some gardening or shopping, are all good ways to involve the older/adult children.
If your elderly parent(s) are living with you and need constant care, then don’t be afraid to ask older/adult children to stay with them while you’re gone. This will not only give them important time together but also give you a break.
Avoid conflict by setting boundaries and making time to listen to each other
When splitting your time between people who need you, it’s only natural that there might be times of conflict or misunderstanding. This can usually be eased by being as open and honest as possible, and making time to talk and listen to one another.
If you feel as though you’ve not spent much time with your children recently due to your caring responsibilities, then you could set aside some time to do this – which might involve arranging some alternate care for your parent(s). Quality time is important, and this can also give all of you a chance to get things off your chest.
If there’s tension between you and your children and you sense that it’s related to the caring situation, then it’s worth asking them about this and working together to find solutions. If they won’t open up to you, then grandparents can also play a part; children might be more willing to talk to their grandparents than their own parents about how they feel about things. There might be times when a solution can’t be reached, but sometimes just talking about issues can ease a difficult situation
Setting some boundaries is also a good way of avoiding conflict. If your parent(s) are living with you and your family, then doing things like gently reminding the other family members to knock on the door of their room before entering, can really help.
This is also true when you need to take some time for yourself. Anyone caring for or supporting others needs to take a break every now and then, and no one should begrudge you that. When you do take time to relax and recharge, you might find our article about how to detox your mind helpful.
8 tips for managing sandwich generation stress
1. Access your support network
If you’re the primary carer for elderly parents or relatives, then don’t be afraid to ask for help from other members of your family – or from friends and neighbours. If they’re unaware of the situation, they won’t be able to offer support.
The same goes if you’re looking after young grandchildren and you need help with the school run or getting them to after school clubs. Rather than always taking them yourself, see if you can set up a roster with other parents or grandparents so that each of you gets a break.
2. Have family meetings
Consider planning some family meetings where you can ask for help with a range of different tasks, such as taking elderly parents to medical appointments, doing the shopping, or even preparing a meal. Even small things can help to ease the pressure on you. If possible, you can also encourage family members to be part of the routine caregiving plan.
If you have a partner, then you might also be able to lean on them a bit more during this time; both practically and emotionally. Just as being open and honest with your parents and children is key – it’s equally important to be open and honest with your partner. They might not realise just how much you’re feeling the strain.
3. Take time for yourself
Remember to take care of yourself. It’s essential that you do this for your own wellbeing and that of your family. This means making time for your needs; like eating properly, getting enough sleep, listening to your favourite music, going for a run or walk, or reading a book.
You might feel that you’re being self-indulgent, but your family of all ages will gain from it. Taking time for yourself will make you more resilient and less inclined to let any resentment you might feel towards the situation build up.
4. Include variety in your day
Introduce variety into your day. If you’re caring for two generations, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut by doing the same thing at the same time every day. But this can be detrimental to your wellbeing. Instead, mix up your days whenever possible.
5. Make time for fun
If it’s been a while since you’ve had a Friday night wine (or three!) with your children, or since you’ve been to see a movie or a show with your parents, then see if you can start these things back up again. If you’re caring for elderly relatives, then there might be some practical aspects to consider. But even just having a laugh together over a comedy show on TV could offer you both some light relief.
6. Seek external support for carers
Don’t be afraid to look for external support if you need it. Carers UK is one place that offers information, support, and advice for people in caring situations – and it’s also worth asking your local council about what support is available locally.
Attending carers meetings, whether in person or virtually, can give you the chance to hear ideas from others who are in a similar situation to yourself. At the very least you’ll know that you aren’t on your own.
7. Find out whether you’re entitled to any financial support
8. See what support might be available for you at work
If you’re working and caring for a loved one, then it’s worth talking to your employer about your situation, as they might be able to help. Carers do have rights, which can include the right to request a flexible working arrangement to help you fulfil both your responsibilities.
Flexible working can include working compressed hours – for example, doing all your hours in four days, rather than five. You could also request to start or finish later. It’s important to note that to request a flexible working arrangement, you’ll need to have been continuously employed for 26 weeks. Your employer has up to three months to make a decision on whether to grant your request and, legally, you can make one request per year.
When caring for family members who are several generations apart, it’s easy to forget about your own needs. The tendency is to put their requirements first, whilst forgetting your own. However, it’s important that you make time for yourself too. Not only will this help you feel happier, healthier, and better able to cope – but it will also mean that you’re in a stronger position to help those around you.
It can also be easy to convince yourself that you have to do everything alone. But asking for help can be a key step in finding balance, and working towards an arrangement that suits everyone.