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Are you a part of the sandwich generation? You might not have heard the sandwich generation definition, but 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. Plus, 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 definition of the sandwich generation?
What does it mean to be part of the sandwich generation? If you fit into the sandwich generation definition, you are one of many adults who are stuck caring for older relatives and children at the same time.
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 these family members. 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.
These are the people who make up the sandwich generation.
Diving deeper into the sandwich generation definition
Multigenerational caregivers spend over two and a half hours a day on unpaid care. For moms, caregiving duties go up to three hours a day. If you fit the sandwich generation definition, it’s easy to see why this type of care can cause you to feel anxious and stressed.
Unfortunately, parents stuck in the sandwich generation might stay stuck for longer than they hope — today, adult children are relying on the support of their parents more than ever.
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 U.S.’s 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 U.S. history.
Increased life expectancy further amplifies this impact. People across the world are just living longer. Yet there’s been 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 — in addition to their older children. That’s exactly the sandwich generation definition, and it can be extremely stressful for those who are part of it.
FAQs about the sandwich generation
You might have some additional questions now that you know the sandwich generation definition. Take a look at these FAQs about the sandwich generation to help you learn more.
How many Americans are in the sandwich generation?
In 2018, 12% of American parents with children younger than 18 handled multigenerational caregiving. This means they provided unpaid care for an older adult in addition to their children. These are the Americans that fall under the sandwich generation definition.
How common is the sandwich generation?
As we mentioned above, 12% of parents are part of the sandwich generation. Researchers also found that 31% of the sandwich generation was made up of Hispanics. That’s more than white or black members of the sandwich generation, which make up 24% and 21% respectively.
No matter who you are, you might have someone in your life who meets the sandwich generation definition. Or, you could find yourself as one of many family caregivers in America, juggling the responsibility of elderly parents and your children.
What age is the sandwich generation?
Middle-aged adults make up the sandwich generation. They are most likely from Generation X, between the ages of 40-59. However, according to a Pew Research Center survey, 19% are millennials younger than 40 and at least 10% are older than 60.
Examples of the sandwich generation
Let’s make the sandwich generation definition super clear with some examples.
- You’re a 35-year-old woman who just had her first child. While taking care of a newborn, you also have to check in on your 60-year-old parents who are beginning to have health problems. The burden will only grow as your child gets older.
- Your 28-year-old son is still living at home and relies on you financially — maybe because they have a disability or the economy is preventing them from getting a job. You also have your 75-year-old mom living with you because she can’t afford a senior living home. You must support both generations at one time.
- You have three kids under the age of five running around. They keep you busy enough, but your 65-year-old dad has been suffering major health problems. You must make time to visit him, take him to doctor's appointments, and give your kids attention, too. Not to mention, find time to go to work.
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, costs can reach over $10,000 per year, on average.
So why is the financial burden so heavy?
Sandwich caregivers spend hours and hours 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.
That’s just the lost opportunity cost. Those who fit the sandwich generation definition also need to factor in:
- The medical cost required to keep their aging parents healthy
- Retirement home costs
- At-home elder care
- College tuition for their children
- Childcare costs for young children
- Financial support for older children
Those costs quickly add up and can cause a ton of financial stress.
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. If you fit the sandwich generation definition, you need to be aware of how caretaking duties can affect your mental health.
According to the American Psychological Association’s ongoing Stress in America survey, women are more affected than men by the stress caregiving.
40% of women between 35–54 report feeling extreme stress, compared to 29% of 18–34-year-olds. Those 55 years and older also feel lower levels of stress, reported at 25%.
Several different stressors can lead to these feelings.
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 their own children. If they don’t have time to do that, it can lead to empathy and compassion fatigue.
The sandwich generation is always worried about something or someone. And because sandwiched parents spend so much time as unpaid caregivers, they have no time for self-care.
They’re always juggling jobs, household chores, children’s activities, meal preparation, and caregiving for aging relatives. This can lead to mental health issues over time, like caregiver burnout, burnout at work and mental fatigue.
How to support the sandwich generation
Maybe you don’t fit the sandwich generation definition, but you have friend or family member that does. How can you support them as they juggle the many demands of caring for children and aging parents?
Easing financial strains
Consider supporting the sandwich generation in financial ways. As we mentioned above, the costs of caregiving can be endless. Here are a two great ways to help ease financial strains for your “sandwiched” loved ones:
- Encourage them to invest in financial planning. If you know someone who meets the definition of the sandwich generation, they’re probably too overwhelmed to think about their future. Unfortunately, lack of financial planning can lead this generation to forget about saving for retirement. Encourage your friends and family to work with a financial planner — it will be more than worth it for their financial wellness.
- Offer your time, free of charge. If your sandwich generation loved ones have young children at home, they probably spend a lot of money on childcare. Do you have a free Friday night? Offer to babysit for your friends so they can take time for some much-needed self-care. You can offer the same help if they have elderly relatives that can’t be left alone.
Reducing emotional burdens
The sandwich generation faces heavy emotional burdens, and they need a solid support system to push through. How can you help? Here are a few ways you can try to reduce emotional burdens for your loved ones in the sandwich generation:
- Be a great listener. Instead of jumping in with advice, try waiting until they ask for it specifically — they may just need to vent about their problems for a while.
- Offer to run errands for them. This can give your sandwich generation loved ones the time they need to do self-care.
- Hang out on their time. Sometimes, sandwich generation individuals can feel isolated because of hectic schedules. Do your best to be there when they have time — even if that means tagging along while they drive their kids back and forth to soccer practice.
Check in on them often. With all the demands the sandwich generation is juggling, they might not be able to pick up your call or answer every text. Don’t let that stop you from consistently reaching out and asking “how are you?” Even a simple, “I’m thinking of you, let me know how I can help” text can make a huge difference during a tough time.
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How do you survive the sandwich?
If you find yourself meeting the definition of the sandwich generation, take a deep breath. 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. Family caregivers don’t just have to be you and your partner — if you’re kids are old enough, ask them to play a part.
Next time you need some space for yourself, delegate dinner to your partner for a few nights a week. You can also ask your kids to pitch in for chores.
Consider asking an independent family member for support where you need it, too. 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
Try to find a safe place where you can get advice from people who experience the same daily challenges as you. A support system is essential when you’re balancing parent care, childcare, and everything else in your life.
You could join an online group for caregivers or look near you for local meetups. These people can help provide emotional support. Some online groups also 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 healthcare. But regular 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, consider getting support from BetterUp.
Vice President of Alliance Solutions