NEWS

Caregivers Caught in the Middle—How the Overworked Sandwich Generation Can Cope

drawing of woman helping her mother while looking back at her crying kids

Verywell / Adriana Sanchez

Key Takeaways

  • Over 40 million people work as unpaid caregivers for someone age 65 or older.
  • Caregivers in the sandwich generation experience exhaustion, stress, and depression caring for kids and elderly parents.
  • It’s critical that caregivers find ways to decompress and support their mental health.

After working all day, a parent races to pick up their child from school, then goes home to make sure their elderly father is fed. Another mother homeschools her kids while interviewing new caregivers for her parents and researching assisted care living facilities. Cleaning and bathing her mother with dementia and breastfeeding her newborn baby pushes a new mom to the brink of exhaustion.

Each of these individuals is a caregiver, sandwiched between raising their kids and caring for their parents. Research shows that over 40 million people work as unpaid caregivers for someone age 65 or older. They juggle their duties helping others with managing home life, work, and other relationships. The balancing act, or lack thereof, exacts a heavy toll on their mental health.

“This is a particularly stressful time of life for caregivers in that they tend to feel like they are neglecting something or someone. They often do not take time or have time for their own self-care,” notes Leslie Adams, LCPC, CADC, Behavioral Health Services, Case Therapist II, Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital. “Much of the self-care they need is to offset the stress that comes from caring for people with a wide variety of needs,” she adds.

Sacrificing self-care while managing two grueling sets of dynamics can leave caregivers feeling frustrated, lonely, and resentful. Although your love for your children and parents shines through, it’s still a hard job filled with tough choices.

However, you can’t help others without first helping yourself. Being patient with yourself, recognizing you are doing your best, and taking the mental health breaks you need, can help you fulfill your duties to care for your kids and your parents.

Sandwiched Between the Generations

The Sandwich Generation refers to adults who are “sandwiched” between raising their children and taking care of their elderly parents. Almost 25% of adults are a part of the sandwich generation. Over 50% of US adults in their 40s are raising children ages 18 and younger while caring for an elderly parent. Research shows that more than half of all caregivers are women.

The strain caregivers feel isn’t just physical, with being present for the kids and parents. It’s not just emotional, offering love and support. It’s also mental, struggling with the pain of not being able to meet everyone’s needs.

“This is going to be a juggling act with the most pressing needs coming first,” Adams asserts.

Leslie Adams, LCPC

I think someone who is pulled in these two directions is going to have to get comfortable with saying ‘No’.

— Leslie Adams, LCPC

Caregivers are stuck with making hard choices. “I think someone who is pulled in these two directions is going to have to get comfortable with saying ‘No’. Being thoughtful and realistic about what is doable will require practice and become easier in time,” adds Adams.  

Despite their best efforts, sandwiched caregivers often struggle mentally with a sense of guilt.

“False guilt … just makes us feel like bad people. We haven’t done anything to intentionally inflict pain on someone, and so it does not serve a purpose other than calling out a situation where it is going to be nearly impossible to please everyone,” Adams states.

Caregivers also experience grief. They mourn the relationships they expected with their parents, and their kids. There may be grief over not being able to have the home life envisioned for the kids, with dinner on the table every night or calm family times. There may be grief over a loss of companionship with a parent, as roles change. Caregivers often become overwhelmed, experiencing anxiety, stress, and depression.

It's important to put measures in place to not only care for your parents and kids, but also for yourself.

Taking Care of the Caregiver

In a situation where you are caring for multiple family members of various ages with different needs, there is no easy solution. Creating a sense of order and structure helps.

Rachael Benjamin, LCSW

I think that the priorities need to be … what’s the most loving thing I can do in this relationship?

— Rachael Benjamin, LCSW

“I think that the priorities need to be … what’s the most loving thing I can do in this relationship?” notes Rachael Benjamin, LCSW, Director, Tribeca Maternity.

Being kind to a parent may mean considering an assisted living or nursing care facility, where they can be safe and get the help they need. While it may not be what you want, it is a caring action for your parent, and yourself. Being kind can mean limiting your kids’ activities, to reduce the strain on your time and resources.

You can also dole out some of your other responsibilities, getting other family members to pitch in. The kids can take on additional chores at home, like doing the laundry or cleaning the kitchen. An older child can handle pickups from sports and clubs to give mom a chance to help grandma with her exercises. Your siblings can lend a hand with your parent’s care or following up on medical appointments. 

Sometimes taking a step back to focus on the positives in life can be beneficial. Being thankful for having a parent who is still in your life, or for a spouse who supports you, can bring a measure of peace.

Be sure to find your pockets of time to decompress. It could be the drive alone to and from your dad’s house. It could be your morning workout run that gives you peace of mind. Taking time for yourself is not selfish; it’s necessary. 

Caregiving is not an easy task. It requires dedication, focus, and a willingness to serve. It also requires giving care to yourself, so you can be there for the people who need you most.

Ultimately, it’s important to show yourself the same care and compassion you show to others. Benjamin recommends giving yourself a reminder.

“I can be good enough. I’ll do the best that I can do and that will be good enough. I can make mistakes in this moment and miss something and learn from it and that will have to be good enough,” Benjamin concludes.

What This Means For You

Caregiving involves being patient, loving, and compassionate. It’s hard work, and can be mentally, physically, and emotionally draining. Give yourself grace, put measures in place to support your own mental health, and know that you are doing your best.

 

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4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unpaid Eldercare in the United States - 2017-2018 Summary.

  2. Family Caregiver Alliance. The Emotional Side of Caregiving.

  3. Pew Research Center. More than half of Americans in their 40s are "sandwiched" between an aging parent and their own children.

  4. Irfan B, Irfan O, Ansari A, Qidwai W, Nanji K. Impact of caregiving on various aspects of the lives of caregivers. Cureus. 9(5):e1213.