Being a part of the sandwich generation means you are the caregiver of kids and aging parents, or a “sandwich caregiver.” It’s the toughest job you may ever have. The role of caring for two generations of loved ones comes with many challenges. Frequently, the weight of this point in your life can feel crushing.
Meet the Sandwich Generation
Adults of all ages, including boomers, Gen X and millennials, find themselves in this position. Who makes up the sandwich generation? According to the American Brain Society:
- 47% of adults between 40-59, with an average age of 42
- 36% are between 18-34
- 47% are men
- 53% are women
- 62% are married or live with partners
- 54% work full-time
- The average caregiver spends 32 hours weekly looking after a loved one.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that of the 8.2 million Americans providing eldercare to loved ones:
- 35% had children under 6
- 65% had kids between 6 and 17
- 48% of those caring for children living at home are providing eldercare to their own parents
The Struggles the Sandwich Generation Faces
The work you do is often unpaid, and you rarely pay others to take care of your elderly loved ones. Your out-of-pocket costs are high, too. Besides what you spent caring for your children, you spent about $7,400 in 2019 caring for your parents, according to a study from AARP. Family members who live further away cost more to care for, about $12,000-$12,700 annually.
According to the American Brain Society, 76% of the sandwich generation put their needs last or on hold:
- Jeopardizing retirement to save for kids’ college and care for parents
- Risking jobs with the number of hours taken away from work
- Emotional strain from being a partner, caregiver, and parent all at once
No wonder sandwich caregivers may be feel stressed and overwhelmed. Getting relief and support is crucial to your well-being if you want to meet your obligations to your loved ones.
Tips for the Sandwich Generation
Here are some practical ways to make your job as a sandwich generation caregiver less stressful. They include tips on self-care, finances, and employer-based benefits that can help you manage this season of your life.
Start by identifying your stressors at home, work and other situations. Then determine how you deal with stress. Are you engaging in healthy or unhealthy behaviors to cope? Here are other ways to reduce stress and care for yourself.
Exercise, eat well and get enough rest.
Sandwich caregivers have higher rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, and other chronic diseases, according to the American Brain Society. These things will help lower your chances of treating illnesses in yourself that you’re also helping manage in your parents. If you already have chronic health challenges, manage those first so you can care for others. Establish a healthy lifestyle. Create space at home or outdoors to exercise, eat the best food you can afford (in moderation), and sleep seven to eight hours every night. Don’t forget to drink plenty of water.
Seek social support.
Often, you spend so much time with the children or parents in your care that you don’t maintain friendships or other social networks. Maintain positive connections with friends and other family members. Look for groups of people in your community who share your caregiver profile and can offer you support. Sometimes, it can be as simple as finding Facebook Groups, Meetups or starting or joining a caregiver support group in the neighborhood where you live.
Maintain hobbies and your identity.
You need at least a few hours a week of alone time to decompress. This can be difficult when you’re sharing a home with loved ones, especially during a pandemic when activities are limited, but if you make it a priority, you can do it at home without spending a lot of money. Get adult coloring books, learn to paint, create video or podcast playlists, or read books or watch movies. (Many local libraries offer apps like Hoopla that allow you to borrow digital content as you would in person.) Maintain your talents like singing or playing a musical instrument. Do the things that bring your joy and make you who you are.
Keep up with your medical or other care needs.
Don’t neglect yourself by trying to find time to do everything you must do for everyone other than you. Don’t miss your physical or dental appointments. If you and those in your care attend the same doctor, try to schedule those appointments back to back. Be deliberate about meeting your other physical and spiritual self-care needs. Minor health issues left unattended can lead to worse ones. You wouldn’t let that happen to those you’re caring for, so do the same for yourself.
Get mental health support and ask for other help.
Being a sandwich caregiver is stress-inducing and often mentally and spiritually draining. Talking to mental health or faith professionals who specialize in helping those in your situation can help. Do this especially if you notice yourself developing unhealthy behaviors. Also, asking for help from others you trust when you need it can help reduce the need for professional help. For example, hiring someone to entertain the kids for a few hours while you exercise, engage in a hobby, and spend time with your partner can do wonders.
Get Your Finances in Order
Sandwich caregivers can find it difficult to achieve and maintain healthy finances. You have many more economic considerations than those without your responsibilities, though. Here are some ways you can manage your finances better.
Put insurance coverage in place.
It’s important to look beyond life, auto and homeowner’s insurance (which you should have), since you can face other unexpected costs that jeopardize your finances. A sudden or long-term illness or injury could put you out of commission, unable to care for yourself or your loved ones. So, consider disability insurance in case you’re sick or injured and can’t work, and accident insurance if your injury is because of an accident. Look into critical illness insurance to pay for treatment costs that your insurance doesn’t cover.
Create and maintain a family budget.
Caring for everyone in your family as a sandwich caregiver often comes with higher-than-average costs. Keeping household and other costs managed is vital. Seek input from all the capable members of your family to develop a family budget that everyone agrees to maintain. Consider elements like distance care for elders not living with you or educational costs for your kids from daycare to college. Consider encouraging older kids to get part-time jobs to pay some of their own expenses, or getting a side hustle to help meet yours.
Plan for your retirement while saving for kids’ college.
It’s essential you not neglect your own retirement savings by using your money only to take care of others. Your retirement fund should be as much a priority as your kids’ college fund. Be sure you and your partner contribute as much as you can to work-based retirement programs. Also, try to put the maximum you can into IRA accounts each year, especially if you’re self-employed. Consider other tax-deferred ways to save for retirement, too. Seek help from a financial planner if you need assistance making a plan for retirement.
Set aside emergency funds.
Most people find themselves unprepared for an emergency like car repairs or an appliance breakdown. But, when you’re a sandwich caregiver, a seemingly small unexpected expense can be a big deal for your family. Saving up six month’s worth of income may be a challenge, so start by setting aside funds for smaller emergencies. Then, build a larger emergency fund from there.
Consider long-term care and other costs for older family members.
As people age, they’re more likely to develop serious illnesses that require specialized, long-term care. Often, that care needs to come from professionals, because you can’t do it yourself. As you see your caregiving responsibilities increase, have long-term care discussions with your loved ones. Identify what resources they have available and what their expenses are to determine where there are gaps. There are financial professionals who can help you address those needs.
Identify Employer-Based Help
Your employer may have a variety of benefits in place that you can maximize beyond retirement. Here are a few to consider.
Understand family leave policies.
Determine whether your family’s current —and future — needs will require you to take leave from work. Know what federal laws require your employer to provide and ask your employee benefits manager what policies they have in place related to family leave. Budget and use your family leave responsibly to avoid either losing it or running out of time. Determine what your alternatives are if the family leave you have is not enough and put a plan in place to reduce stress.
Examine your available health insurance benefits.
Understand what benefits are available to you through your job and make the best of family health insurance plans. Compare your coverage to your partner’s to see if one covers gaps in the other. Learn about and implement a health savings account or other tax-favored health plans if you have high deductibles or your health plan doesn’t cover enough.
Use your Employer Assistance Program (EAP) benefits.
Many employees don’t use these valuable benefits because of privacy concerns. But federal law requires employers to maintain your privacy. Using an EAP may save costs for mental health care, legal help, caregiver help, and referrals to a variety of services you need, like home health care help.
Many caregivers find what they do for their family rewarding. They experience high happiness levels and increased self-worth. They also build strong family bonds because of their proximity to family members or their level of engagement in long-distance relationships. These tips can help make that a reality in your life and reduce the struggle associated with being a sandwich generation caregiver.
We want to hear from you! In the comments below, share with others what has worked for you in making your caregiving duties less stressful for you and your family.