What do you get when you combine a soccer mom and a family caregiver? Many of us might be inclined to respond, “Superwoman!” before asking to hear a better joke. But sociologists have a deadpan answer: “You get a member of the Sandwich Generation.”
Caring for an aging parent is an immense challenge, and one of the most profound tasks we can take on in our lives. The same can be said about raising children. But tackling both elder care and child care at once requires heroic fortitude and patience. Despite the tremendous pressures faced by those with these dual obligations, millions of Americans have assumed this admirable but unenviable role. They are the Sandwich Generation—the large mass of Americans who are both raising children and helping to care for elderly parents. And a large mass it is: 81% of family caregivers who responded to an A Place for Mom survey were also raising children.
July is Sandwich Generation Awareness Month, giving us an opportunity to honor the heroic caregivers whose labor of love shapes the future and honors our past. These heroes are not only the glue of families, but also play a crucial role in the function and stability of society as a whole. This special month presents an opportunity to recognize the significant sacrifice Sandwich Generation members have made and continue to make each day.
Our survey confirmed that multi-generational caregivers experience high levels of stress, and many report simply not having enough time in the day to accomplish their multitude of responsibilities. Furthermore, Sandwich Generation members often see a negative impact on their career. Our survey found that 23% of multi-generational caregivers would consider leaving their job all together, and a further 31% would attempt to reduce their hours. Despite the hardship endured by multi-generational caregivers, our survey results showed that Sandwich Generation members also find the role rewarding. Just over 40% of respondents cited the opportunity to reciprocate care received during childhood as a benefit, and 25% claimed that the opportunity for their children to develop strong relationships with grandparents is an valuable part of the experience.
“Ten years ago, I would not have guessed my mother would live with us. We just didn’t think about what was down the road,” said Kim Hunter, a 41-year old wife, mother and caregiver. “The experience is equal parts challenging and rewarding. On one hand I am juggling work with the needs of both my mom and my kids. On the flipside, my children are getting to know their grandma in a special way while I am getting to know my mom on a different, deeper level.”
The significant hardship by multi-generational caregivers begs the question, “What can we as a society do to help?” The Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 was a start. The law assures that most people caring for an ailing parent, spouse or child can at least keep their jobs. Assistance programs, available in some states, that pay a stipend and provide services to people who are caring for elderly family members or disabled children may also be a step in the right direction. But in our budget-strapped and highly polarized political environment, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a major government initiative designed to improve the lives of multi-generational caregivers any time soon. Perhaps the most practical step for those of us hoping to make a difference in the lives of the Sandwich Generation might be as simple as offering to mow the lawn or walk the dog of a “sandwiched” friend, family member, or neighbor who is shouldering an excessive burden; Small acts of kindness can make a world difference. A “thank you” goes a long way too.
Are you a member of the Sandwich Generation? Do you have ideas about how to support multi-generational caregivers? We welcome your comments.