Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: The Sandwich Generation: Surviving Emotional Challenges

sandwich generationIf you have ever been on the way to visit your son at college when you get a call that your parent has fallen—You know about the Sandwich Generation.

If you and your wife have just arranged for your Mom to move in when your daughter asks if she, her husband and their dog can return home for just a month—You know about the Sandwich Generation.

According to the Pew Research Center, just over 1 of every 8 Americans aged 40 to 60 is both raising a child and caring for a parent. Dubbed the “ sandwich generation” this ever-increasing group of baby boomers is caring for the needs of family members on both sides.

  • Most will tell you they would never give up the opportunity to care for their loved ones.
  • Most will also agree–This is no easy task!

While dealing with the demands of time, finances, medical appointments, school schedules, transportation, food choices and insurances forms is no small feat, it is often dealing with the emotions inherent in this dual caring that presents the greatest challenges.

Understanding some of these emotional challenges offers some Sandwich Generation Survival Techniques.

The Emotional Challenges

Legacy Dynamics

  • For most people their closest genetic connections, their major source of identity, their earliest experience of attachment and their greatest fear of loss involve their parents and their children.
  • As such, with either group, the wish to please and the fear of judgment is very high.
  • When the care of both groups is needed at the same time, the stakes are higher and the stress on the caregiver, much greater.
  • Given the historical pull and unconscious stirrings, many in the sandwich generations have a far more difficult time saying “No” to an aging parent or adult child than to a spouse with whom they have a clearer adult relationship.

Being in The Middle of the Sandwich

Adding to the strain, the sandwich generation is “ in the middle” in literal and emotional ways. Often they actually are subject to judgment from both sides. It is no coincidence that these folks are often very similar – They do say traits can skip a generation!

  • “ I can’t believe that you do anything Grandpa wants even when it is clear he is just being demanding.”
  • “ Why don’t you let your kids be a little more independent the way your Mom and I raised you?”

Not infrequently, the two sides get along well and the blending of generations allows for acceptance, discloser, and care. This is often a gift to all and a great help to the sandwiched caregiver.

It becomes less wonderful when it is a source of critique:

  • “ Mom stop being mean to Grandma – She is only trying to help.”
  • “ Why can’t you let your daughter date who she wants – you are creating the problems.”

While many caregivers in the middle will acknowledge that they may well be too impatient or too controlling and that the critique may have some merit, they report that what is most stressful is caregiving on either side–with an audience. Not only does the anticipated scrutiny add to the need to do it right; it ups the resentment, which disqualifies the efforts. There is no winning performance.

Old Relationships–New Rules

  • Another emotional challenge for the sandwich generation is the complaint that as they provide care for children and parents–the roles with each keep changing.
  • Good parenting that leads to secure attachment is associated with attunement to the child in a way that anticipates and regulates needs. Once children are young adults,however, the rules change and less parenting equates to good parenting.

Try asking a twenty year old who is driving back to Buffalo in the winter, if he has gloves!

  • Dealing with an aging parent is like time travel. Feeling the pull of your historical child position, you are trying to anticipate and address the present and future needs your parent is denying. For this group, more caregiving must be presented as less caregiving.
  • Many know the feeling of agreeing that their aging parent is still quite capable even as they insist that a daily caregiver checks in to clean and cook.

Tactfully rehiring help fired by an aging parent is an invaluable skill!

Sandwich Generation Emotional Survival Skills

 The Need to Say “No”

The ability to say “ no” is crucial for the physical and emotional well being of everyone. It is easy to forget your own needs as you are dealing with the expectations of parents and children. If there is never a “ no” – there is no real “yes”– just demands, compliance, resentment and burnout.

Buffer Stress with Balance

  • When you are pulled in two directions it is easy to lose sight of your own adult identity.
  • Balancing your caregiving with time for your own work, recreation, time alone, vacations, and future plans makes on-going caregiving sustainable.
  • Time with adult colleagues or friends often provides a corrective lens to historical guilt and expectations that are making your life feel impossible.
  • If replacing some of your caregiving with the help of other caregivers helps you—it helps everyone.
  • If you want happiness for all—you can’t do it all.

Connect for Love and Comfort

Keep in mind that although you may have loved your parents, you most likely left home to connect or marry with someone you loved.

Keep in mind that although you love your children, they cannot be your only focus or source of connection.

Caring for parents and children cannot equate to overlooking or losing your marriage or primary relationship. Partners who feel loved want to help in both directions—if you let them.

Overlooking your primary adult love relationship overlooks a primary source of joy, energy and fulfillment needed by you and others you love.

Self-Care to Survive

Statistics reveal considerable physical and emotional risks for caregivers. It really isn’t true that “ Mothers Can’t Be Sick.”

The more entitled you feel to watch and regulate your own stress, fatigue, and health needs, the more you give to those who need your care.

Three generations photo available from Shutterstock