Each year, 44 million Americans provide 37 billion hours of informal care for an aging parent. While this can be a rewarding experience for both a senior and an adult child, often times it is a situation that leads to stress and burnout for the caregiving family member. According to Today’s Caregiver, families in the US provide 80 to 90 percent of in-home long term care for seniors. Many of these families are headed by adults that are part of what has come to be known as the “sandwich generation” – middle-aged adults that care for an aging parent while still caring for their own children.

The Sandwich Generation

According to Family Caregiver Alliance, the typical “sandwiched” caregiver is a woman in her mid-40s who is married, employed and cares for her parent (usually mother). However, the number of men caring for aging parents continues to grow.  Nearly 60 percent of caregiving family members work full or part-time, and caring for a senior often affects their work performance. Due to time constraints, they may not be able to take that big promotion.  The rising needs of senior parents may force an adult child to work less hours. This cycle will continue to create stress and financial strains on the sandwiched adult. Many of these adults live in rural areas that often have geographic barriers to professional resources; which isolate them from other caregivers or family members.

In most cases, the senior living with an adult child needs assistance with activities of daily living (ADLs) – simple, routine tasks like getting dressed or bathing. Along with this, many families also help their aging parents coordinate medical needs, administer medication, and provide financial, emotional and spiritual support. If these services were provided by the national healthcare system, the cost would be nearly $250 billion per year (source: Today’s Caregiver).

In addition to financial and emotional strain, caring for an aging parent can also cause relational strain on many levels. According to a survey by Caring.com, 80 percent of family caregivers said that caring for an aging parent put a strain on their relationship or marriage, and 48 percent said it was causing them to “drift apart.” Children of sandwiched adults may not understand that their grandparents need care, too, and may come to resent the aging senior. Even if they do understand, an aging senior will likely use up more of the parent’s time, causing the parent to miss out on bonding with their children. Many times, the parent-child relationship between the senior and sandwiched adult is strained due to reversed caregiver roles. Friendships can be lost due to lack of spare time, and any of these relationships can be damaged due to the sandwiched adult “lashing out” because of stress.

Reaching Out for Help

When do I find time for myself? For my marriage? How do I split my time between my own children and my aging parent? Where can I find resources to help me?

The heavy load carried by the sandwich generation brings about common stressors that leave adult children asking these questions and more. Not being able to accomplish everything will usually cause guilt. Since the average time that the adult child will care for their aging parents is 8 years, the stress that builds up and the difficulty of the situation may eventually force the child to a realization: it’s time to reach out for professional help.

Just having this thought can make an adult child feel guiltier, but it is important to remember that one can provide quality care for someone only if they are taking care of themselves. In many cases, some needs are better met professionally. Hiring an in-home caregiver or placing a senior in the right assisted-living community can provide many new opportunities for the senior and adult child.
An in-home caregiver will allow an aging senior to remain in a familiar environment in the adult child’s home, or to “age in place” in their own home. An assisted-living community is a great intermediate step for those who need assistance with ADLs but do not need the 24-hour medical care of a nursing home. These communities also offer social stimulation, exercise, nutritional guidance and transportation. At the same time, the senior is able to maintain a sense of independence. The combination of all of these can improve the quality (and longevity) of life for a senior.

By relieving the stress of meeting a senior’s caregiving needs, an adult child can better focus on his or her own needs and the needs of other family members. Peace of mind will come with knowing that the senior is receiving quality care. That said, many feel that the most important aspect of this arrangement is that the time spent with an aging parent can truly be quality time. Instead of being pulled in all directions at once, sandwiched adults will have more time to cherish the relationships they have with spouses, children, and their aging parents or loved ones.