It is estimated that American families provide more than 80 percent of all in-home or long-term care for family members who are either aging, chronically ill or have a disabled child or other family member.
This includes a myriad of services, including care coordination, supervision, medication management, transportation, physical care like bathing or dressing, bill paying and financial management, advocacy, and more. Caregivers are squeezed between competing, equally important sets of responsibilities: looking after their own children, family, jobs, travel, and endless household tasks—and looking after elderly loved ones.
That’s why the people leading these stressed-out lives are called The Sandwich Generation. Though most members of the Sandwich Generation are women, more and more men are facing the same challenges. There’s nothing like long-distance caregiving, isolation, reduced availability of financial resources, minimal family support, lack of time, and lack of access to services to create an environment that fosters stress, depression, and burnout among caregivers.
The problem often starts with communication—or rather, lack of it. When adult children are unable or unwilling to talk to aging relatives about their preferences for care, legal and financial details, or medical decision-making authority, it can be even more overwhelming. Guilt, that persistent feeling that one is not doing enough, can be paralyzing when caregivers are juggling multiple tasks and responsibilities.
If you’re in the Sandwich Generation, what can you do to minimize the squeeze?
Talk. It is very important to have those difficult conversations about care wishes and preferences. That’s the only way to prepare for the “what ifs” that will inevitably arise. Children and elders must communicate so that all have a chance to talk about their thoughts, feelings, and concerns. Make it an ongoing practice that includes active listening and problem solving.
Share. There is enough work to go around. Family members or siblings can divide the tasks. Mutual expectations can be established, and each person can participate in the valuable and rewarding gift that caregiving can be. If you’re not the primary caregiver, make it a point to assist the person who is. Avoid second-guessing.
Learn. Many caregivers are surprised to learn that there are resources in the community designed to support seniors and those caring for them. Find out what your community, church, and civic organizations offer and use those resources. Educate yourself on the basics of insurance coverage and the legal/financial documents needed to manage your loved one’s affairs. Learn about assets, power of attorney designations, policies, debts, and resources already in place. Too often adult children adopt the “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” attitude. That’s a surefire recipe for a crisis, which forces families to make rushed, last-minute decisions that always cost more. If you don’t know how to plan or where to start, buy books, use internet resources, or call your Area Agency on Aging for help. This is especially important if your elder is not forthcoming about details or won’t engage in a meaningful way.
Connect. Most communities host groups that can provide support to family caregivers along with resources, referrals, and information about programs and services. You’ll learn a lot and you may even be able to uncover and process the complex feelings that caregiver often generates. As everyone you know grow older, you may find that many other colleagues, friends, and neighbors are dealing with the same issues. It can be a relief to discover that you are not alone.
Tune in. Remember, caregivers are prone to illness, so listen to your body. Continue to eat well, exercise, and maintain or restore balance in your life. Take time for yourself every day. Laugh. Make time for your own marriage and children. Try not to get lost in caregiving. Your elder and your health depend on you!!