The sandwich generation, understanding who they are

June 16, 2021 - 14 min read

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What is the sandwich generation?

What you need to know about the sandwich generation

What issues does the sandwich generation encounter?

How do you survive the sandwich?

Balancing life as part of the sandwich generation

Are you part of the sandwich generation?

Let's see if this sounds familiar.

After a grueling day at work, you dream of a relaxing evening at home.

But you know that’s far from your reality.

On top of visiting your aging mother to prepare and feed her dinner, you’ll also need to cook something for your own kids.

And tonight, your daughter desperately needs help with her algebra homework.

So you skip your yoga session and help her out. Once you’re done, you clean up the mess you left in the kitchen and wash all the dishes.

Then you need to pick up your son from work since he doesn’t drive yet.

With everything said and done, it’s already an hour past your bedtime, and you know you’re going to be exhausted at work tomorrow. 

That’s all too common of a scenario when you are a sandwich generation caregiver.

Let’s discuss what the sandwich generation is and how you can deal with the weight of this responsibility.

What is the sandwich generation?

What does it mean to be part of the sandwich generation? The sandwich generation definition is any person caring for growing children while performing the balancing act of caring for an aging relative. 

Their children are either still under 18 and need support, or they are over 18 but still require significant help from their parents.

At the same time, their own parents or other relatives are growing older and losing their autonomy.

The person in charge of caregiving in this situation gets squeezed between two generations that need their support. They are sandwiched between them. Throw in trying to hold a job, much less navigate a career, and you have a person feeling "sandwiched" by competing, emotional- and labor-intensive demands.

Those are the people who make up the sandwich generation.

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What you need to know about the sandwich generation

In 2018, 12% of parents with children younger than 18 handled multigenerational caregiving. This means they also provided unpaid care for an older adult.

This same report stated that these multigenerational caregivers spent over two and a half hours a day on unpaid care. For moms, this goes up to three hours a day.

It’s easy to see why this type of care can cause you to feel anxious and stressed. 

But parents stuck in the sandwich generation in recent times will be stuck there for longer. That’s because more adult children need the support of their parents.

52% of young adults lived with their parents in July 2020. This is the highest it’s been since the Great Depression. At that time, it was 48%.

For adults between 25 and 34 years old, the number is estimated at 17.8%.

On top of that, the U.S. population is aging, which means more people will need to care for their aging parents.

Baby boomers, who are currently between 57 and 75 years old, are a large generation. As a result of their aging, the 65-and-older population grew by 34.2% over the past ten years.

To highlight the impact of this aging population, the median age increased from 37.2 years in 2010 to 38.4 in 2019.

Older people are even projected to outnumber children by 2030, which will be a first in US history.

Increased life expectancy further amplifies this impact, adding to the growing number of older people needing care. People across the world are living longer.

But there is no significant change in the level of mild to moderate disability for older people. So people live for longer, but they don’t live healthier lives.

This means multigenerational caregivers will need to care for their aging parents for longer periods of time.

Combine the fact that people live for longer and children remain with their parents until they are much older, and you can see why the people in the workforce stuck in between are feeling the pressure.

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 What issues does the sandwich generation encounter?

If you are part of the sandwich generation, you may be experiencing several issues. Let’s take a look at the toll on multigenerational caregivers.

Significant financial burden

It’s expensive to care for two generations at the same time.

For adults who need to care for their children and aging parents, this costs over $10,000 per year, on average

So why is the financial burden so heavy?

Sandwich caregivers spend so much time on unpaid labor to balance both their children and aging parents. As a result, many need to reduce their work hours.

This might lead them to lose career opportunities that would require a bigger time commitment at their jobs.

This is just the lost opportunity cost. The sandwich generation also needs to factor in:

  • The medical cost required to keep their aging parents alive
  • Retirement home costs
  • At-home nursing care 
  • College tuition for their children

Those costs quickly add up to become a burden.

Heavy emotional toll 

Caring for two generations at once isn’t just financially expensive. It takes a toll on emotional health and well-being, too.

According to the American Psychological Association’s ongoing research with the Stress in America survey, women are more affected than men by this stress.

40% of women between 35–54 report feeling extreme stress, compared to 29% for 18–34-year-olds. Those 55 years and older also feel lower levels of stress, reported at 25%.

Several factors cause this extreme stress.

Sandwiched parents don’t just need to spend time caring for their loved ones. They also need to process the emotional baggage that comes with caring for an aging relative and dependent children. 

They’re always worried about something or someone.

And because sandwiched parents spend so much time as unpaid caregivers, they have no time for themselves to perform the self-care needed to deal with these emotions.

They need to balance their jobs, household chores, children’s activities, meal preparation, and caregiving for aging relatives.

This can lead to other issues, like burnout at work. 

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How do you survive the sandwich?

If you find yourself in the sandwich generation, know that it is possible to manage the stress associated with this position. 

Here are four tips to reduce your stress levels and survive your time as a multigenerational caregiver:

1. Prioritize self-care

If you don’t care for yourself, you won’t be in a good position to care for your loved ones. This can lead to emotional exhaustion. That’s why you need to prioritize self-care whenever you can.

When you’re busy focusing on everyone else’s needs, it’s important to take some time to consider what you need.

Ask your partner if they can provide you with some free time so that you can relax and do things you love.

Even if it’s just going on a walk by yourself or visiting a friend, it can go a long way.

2. Delegate to capable family members 

Although you may feel like you need to do everything alone, most of the time, you don’t.

Ask an independent family member for support where you need it.

You can delegate dinner to your partner for a few nights a week. Or, you can also ask your kids to pitch in for chores.

If you have siblings who can help you out, ask them to take care of your elderly parent from time to time. They could also provide childcare a night or two a week.

However, if your siblings live far away, consider asking them for help with things they can do from afar.

For example, they could provide financial support to care for your aging parents if their situation allows it.

They could also manage doctors’ appointments for you.

3. Seek support groups

Find a safe place where you can get advice or talk it out with other people who experience the same daily challenges as you.

You can find an online group for caregivers or look near you for local meetups. These people can help provide emotional support. 

Some online groups offer more specific support. For example, this Facebook group was created for people caring for those with Alzheimer’s and dementia.

4. Get senior care

Various types of senior care exist depending on what you and your aging parents can afford.

Home care services help with housekeeping, meal preparation, transportation, and companionship.

Registered health care professionals provide home health services. They can support your aging relatives with medical supervision, administering medication, providing rehabilitation, and much more.

Your health insurance or Medicare can typically cover home health. But home care isn’t health-related, so it usually won’t be covered.

If you can’t afford home care, other options are available if you need some time to yourself.

For example, you can get respite care. This is a short-term relief given to primary caregivers and can give you as little as an afternoon or as long as several weeks.

Sometimes just an afternoon is enough to help you take care of yourself.

You can also look into adult daycare if you need a day to rest, which can cost between $25–$100 per day.

Balancing life as part of the sandwich generation

Caring for both your parents and your children is by no means easy. But it’s important to realize that you don’t have to manage everything by yourself.

If you feel like your role as a multigenerational caregiver has had an impact on your career, you can get support from BetterUp. Try a demo to see how it works and how you could increase your resilience and well-being.

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Published June 16, 2021

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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