The Sandwich Generation and the Pandemic: How Life Has Changed

sandwich generation

The COVID pandemic of the last few years has touched and affected almost everyone in some way. For some, those changes are much more pronounced than they are for others. One group hit particularly hard is known as the “sandwich” generation.

What is the Sandwich Generation?

The sandwich generation is a group of individuals who are “sandwiched” between taking care of their aging parents as well as their own children. Those in this unique position are often in their 40s or 50s, though some might be younger. In fact, the sandwich generation can be broken down into... well, a variety of sandwiches!

·         The Traditional: These are adults in their 40s or 50s who are helping their elderly parents while assisting their own young adult children, with financial or other matters.

·         The Triple-Decker: This generation is in their 50s and 60s with a bit more on their plate: they have aging parents, grown children, and possibly grandchildren as well, and all of them need some care and attention.

·         The Open-Faced: This refers to anyone else who is involved as a non-professional caregiver. For instance, a 20-something who is taking care of their elderly grandparent.

Though the name “sandwich generation” might invoke a smile, it’s such a common term that it was included in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 2006. As a caregiver and/or parent, you may be part of this important club. This group of individuals will continue to grow as more people live longer and tend to have children later in life.

According to the Pew Research Center, about 47 percent of adults in their 40s and 50s are already parenting kids while taking care of their parents, and 15 percent of those individuals are offering financial assistance to their parents or adult children. According to The American Institute of Stress, 70% of those caregivers are women.

The Everyday Stress for the Sandwich Generation

One of the top stressors for this generation is finances, but it’s not because they are taking care of their parents; it’s more likely that their financial issues arise from taking care of their adult children. The Pew Research Center reported way back in 2013 that 30% of adult children between the ages of 25 and 34 live with their parents, sometimes without a job, and that can lead to serious financial strain. Today, that percentage is even higher.

Speaking of financial strain, a survey reported by the New York Times found that on average, members of the sandwich generation have lost over $10,000 as a result of reducing their work hours, quitting their jobs, or experiencing increased expenses.

In addition, they might face an abundance of medical costs and legal issues for their loved ones, the burden of taking care of a wide range of daily activities for the extended family, keeping a close eye on the younger kids as well as the elderly parents, while dealing with the unique stress of slowly losing time with friends or simply getting out of the house. These things add up over time and lead to a host of issues, including:

·         Depression and isolation

·         Feelings of guilt when there just isn’t enough of one person to go around

·         Feeling overwhelmed by being a spouse, parent, and child – all at the same time

·         Being too worried to enjoy hobbies that were formerly stress-relieving

·         Difficulty with finding time for themselves and their hobbies

·         The loss of some outside relationships

·         A feeling of helplessness

·         Lack of concentration

·         Deep concerns about financial matters

As these individuals take care of others, they tend to forget to take care of themselves. According to Oregon’s Northwest Primary Care, 63% of people living in the “middle” said their eating habits worsened, 58% said they stopped exercising, and 51% started taking more medications.

Stresses Heightened by the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in a variety of stressors, but perhaps especially affected those in the sandwich generation. Record numbers of adult children have moved back home during the pandemic, and elderly parents have been especially at risk of serious illness and death from COVID-19. To that end, caregiving has changed, in that social outings have been curtailed, things like adult community and senior centers have closed their doors, and extra care has to be taken to keep the most vulnerable from being exposed to the virus.

Many individuals have been forced to move out of the workforce for a variety of reasons, and that adds to the financial strain. Since health insurance is often purchased through a work plan, many have found themselves resorting to marketplace insurance plans that might have higher deductibles and premiums. The psychological stress has increased as the opportunities for relaxation and respite, such as a simple lunch date with a friend, have dried up.

The situation with adult children moving back into the home has become worse. In July 2020, Pew Research Center found that a whopping 52 percent of adults aged 18 to 29 live with their parents. That’s the highest number of adults living with parents since the Great Depression. As housing prices skyrocket, the odds of those young adults having the ability to move out become increasingly doubtful.

How to Ease Stress and Avoid Burnout

Caregiver burnout is a very serious problem for the sandwich generation, and the pandemic has made the odds of burnout immeasurably worse. It’s vitally important to care for your own needs if you are in a position of caring for others. Here are some tips on how to stay not only sane but happy as well.

·         Never hesitate to ask for help. It can be tough to do sometimes, but it’s vitally important for your own mental health that you get a break once in a while.

·         Always communicate clearly with your family members. Tell them what you need them to do and why, and then count on them to do it. (This is especially true of your adult children.)

·         Look into any sort of financial help for caregivers that might be offered by your locality or state. Your local senior center might be able to help.

·         Look into meditation. The calming effects can help center you when life gets crazy.

·         Reduce some of your expenses by encouraging aging parents to move into your home.

·         Invest in a medical alert system with fall detection technology for your elderly loved ones.

·         Create a budget and stick to it.

·         Hire a home health aide if you can afford it. This professional caregiver can give you peace of mind and help you spot problems earlier than you might have otherwise, which leads to prompt medical treatment. It can also give you a bit of respite.

·         Hold a family meeting to discuss your budget and anything else that comes to mind. But before you enter that meeting, create an agenda to follow so nobody gets sidetracked.

·         As the pandemic eases, find fun things for your loved ones to do, such as group trips organized through your local senior center. A little normalcy can go a long way toward making everyone feel more upbeat.

·         Eat well. Reach for healthy foods that will give you energy.

·         Look into counseling for yourself. If you can’t afford a counselor, look for support groups for others in the same situation.

·         Take time for yourself. It might be five minutes with a cup of coffee on the patio, or it might be an hour or two for a massage. You’re worth that time to re-group, and a more refreshed you is a more capable you. 

·         If you are working, explain the situation to your boss and ask for extended deadlines or other assistance in meeting your obligations.

·         Stick with remote work if at all possible. This can help ease the burden of worrying about who will take care of your elderly parents while you are away.

·         Encourage your parents to use an emergency button alarm if they feel they need assistance. You can be alerted, or professional services can be notified, depending on the situation.

·         Count your victories and try to forget your losses. It’s important to keep a positive mindset when your life seems chaotic.

·         Get plenty of sleep. Yes, it’s hard to let things go long enough to get your 40 winks in, but you’ll be much more refreshed and better able to handle everything life throws at you when you have enough sleep.

Having peace of mind can work wonders for making you feel more in control. Setting your elderly parents up with a medical alert pendant or bracelet can help give everyone a sense of comfort. It’s there for your parent around the clock, so you can take a little breather and not worry so much. When you’re a member of the sandwich generation with so many things on your plate, a little less worry is always welcome.