If you have to care for both children and ageing parents, you are not alone. Many members of the so-called “sandwich generation,” whose baby boomer parents are now retiring, find themselves in a similar predicament. In the USA, for example, around 47% of adults are supporting both the generation above and below. And similar statistics can be found throughout the West.
The Sandwich Generation
Of course, a “sandwich generation” is nothing new. There have always been people caring for both their children and their parents at the same time. What is new is the sheer number now reaching retirement age (the “silver tsunami,” as it has been nicknamed). In the 2020s, one in five Americans will be over 65.
Unfortunately, though people are living longer lives, they are not necessarily living healthier ones. Indeed, historians may come to see the early 21st century as a pivotal moment, one in which we could prolong life but could not yet improve its quality. Billions are being invested into research on ageing and regenerative medicine. For now, we must wait.
Another problem is the breakdown of the extended family. To put it crudely, the majority of people used to have lots of children and then die in their 60s or 70s. Now, they have fewer children but live on into their 80s and 90s. In a few decades, they may routinely live into their 100s. So the period between retirement and death is getting longer and longer. At the same time, there are fewer and fewer children to look after these retirees and because people move around more than they once did, there is a smaller support network.
To add to the pressure, society now encourages us to invest a great deal more time, care, and attention in our children. And this is reinforced by social media. Parents spend half their lives on sites like Facebook, posting photographs of themselves blinking into the sun, surrounded by glowing, smiling children, plus a little write up explaining that they’ve just been paintballing or rollerblading. To someone who spends the majority of her time driving her father to the hospital or visiting her mother in the care home, this causes immense guilt.
And as low-skilled jobs continue to be replaced by A.I., robots, and machines, increasing emphasis is placed on education and training, with parents constantly fretting about college league tables, exam results, and so on. Social media once again adds to the pressure, as people constantly post pictures of their child winning a place at some prestigious school or college, or celebrating his exam results. A few generations ago, the average working parent just hoped their child would marry and hold down a reasonable job. Now, the limitless opportunity has created a fear of missing out.
Different Generations, Different Needs
Three generations are caught up in this struggle, each with different needs, hopes, and expectations. To begin with, there are the members of the sandwich generation itself. Just because someone sacrifices all their time and ambition to their lonely father and stroppy teen, that does not mean they like it. Many parents, when their children reach a certain age, hope to return to their career, only to learn that their mother has broken her hip, or their father is showing signs of dementia. For someone highly educated or skilled, having to postpone this return can be intensely frustrating.
Guilt and resentment are perhaps the most common emotions. And the two are not unrelated. The sandwich generation often feel guilty all the time. When they visit their ailing parents, they feel guilty for not staying at home to help their daughter revise. But if they leave early so as to read their son a bedtime story, they feel guilty for not spending more time with their mother and father. The conscientious never feel they have done enough. And in a sense they are right: even the most devoted individual cannot give their parents and children, not to mention their partner, all the love and time they need.
Closely related to guilt is simple resentment. Life is very short, and people whose time is eaten up by homework and hospital visits may grow bitter. Such resentment can be deepened by the sight of more selfish, or more fortunate, friends who escape these worries and spend their time vacationing or building a career. This resentment then makes people feel even more guilty, which they resent! And so it goes on, a cycle of guilt and resentment, each emotion feeding off of the other.
The elderly tend to suffer most from loneliness, boredom, and depression. Their children feel duty bound to relieve these in some way: reading to them, passing on gossip, taking them for trips to the coast, and so on. Above all, parents want their child’s time and love. Becoming old and frail can be scary, and when people are scared they often behave with uncharacteristic selfishness.
Teenagers, on the other hand, often do not want your time – may in fact want you to stay away from them. But that does not mean they do not need it. A teenager’s surly, rebellious pose often masks deep insecurity and self-doubt. Though they may not want to be interfered with, they do need to feel that there is a secure and stable base for them to return to.
Unfortunately, those caught between the generations feel duty-bound to keep their pain and unhappiness to themselves. They do not want to upset or worry their parents, and obviously they do not want them to feel like a burden. Equally, they do not want to place any pressure on their children, who they feel should be enjoying their youth and not troubled by such things.
You and Your Partner
Be conscious of the effect this is having on your relationship. Many people come to resent their partner for his, or her, lack of support. For example, an exhausted mother of two may be enraged when she arrives home from visiting her parents to find her partner snoring in front of the TV and piles of dishes in the sink. Others will resent their partner for continuing to enjoy a career, or not stepping in to care for the children.
Sometimes, resentment builds from the other direction, and the remaining partner feels overlooked or neglected. Numerous affairs begin because someone feels ignored by a partner who spends their days rushing from school concert to retirement home. And some people just don’t understand. One partner may have had kind and loving parents, while the other suffered only abuse and neglect. Naturally, the second will struggle to understand the effort and concern of the first.
The relationship with one’s children can also cause a rift. Some children become masters at playing one parent off against the other. For example, a teenage girl may play the victim, provoking her harassed and exhausted mother to yell at her, knowing her father will rush to her defense.
Health and “Me Time”
First, be sure to take care of your health. When caught in this way, there is a temptation to play the martyr. Others feel selfish for going to the gym instead of visiting their mother or taking their son to football practise. But allowing your health to fall apart is foolish and selfish. What good will it do for those you love? Even if you do not become ill, you will certainly have less energy and motivation. And since mental health depends on physical health, you will feel so wretched and low that you won’t be able to cheer up your ageing parent.
Do not make excuses. Even if you haven’t the time to drive to the gym, you could squeeze in some yoga practise at home. And you could certainly eat more healthily. You do not need lots of time and money to replace those morning pancakes with an apple, banana and cup of green tea. People who lead hectic lives tend to eat not just badly but erratically – grabbing things at train stations or stopping at junk food outlets. This also has to end.
“Me time” is important as well. Many people dislike this phrase, appalled by the implicit selfishness. But, like eating healthily and taking more exercise, it will make you a better, not worse, carer. It needn’t be anything dramatic. You don’t need to book a two week cruise in the Caribbean. Just soak in a hot bath now and again, or give yourself half an hour each night to watch a DVD box-set. By doing so, you remind yourself that, yes, you are a human being with your own needs. It is a way of reclaiming your own separate identity.
Communication and Support
Perhaps the most important advice anyone can give is this, do not try to do everything on your own. You must reach out to others. Many hesitate to do so from fear of being thought weak or selfish. But, though it is your duty to take care of those you love, it isn’t your duty to suffer a nervous breakdown in the process. You cannot be everywhere at once, and the sooner you accept this, the better.
Reaching out requires good communication, however. And this is especially true when it comes to your partner. Don’t just take it for granted that he or she understands. Some people can be very literal-minded, and they will take your angry outbursts literally. You know it was a result of stress. But do they? It is no good being frustrated with your partner for not offering more support when you haven’t explained that this is what you need. Some people ignore their partner, rushing to and fro with a cheerful smile, and then, when it all becomes too much, they turn on them with sudden fury and bitterness. If you need more help, ask for it. Sit your family down and explain things in a calm and logical way.
No one would claim that being caught between the demands of two generations is easy. It is exhausting, not just physically but emotionally. And yet what is the alternative? Run away? If you do, your conscience will torment you for the rest of your life.