Sandwich Generation Gets Pulled Between Aging Parents and Grown Kids

Perhaps you’re familiar with the term “Sandwich Generation.” Perhaps you are already living it and have firsthand knowledge of the challenges it provides. Many people think of this parenting designation in terms of providing care for an older parent while simultaneously caring for a young child. But the challenges don’t suddenly disappear when or if your child is grown and has left your home for school or some other young adult experience.

In fact, some of the Sandwich Generation issues become even more complicated when your kids are older. My first real eye-opening experience with Sandwich Generation parenting happened a few years ago when my elderly father was in the final stages of dementia. My entire family was struggling to accept his heartbreaking behavior changes and the stress felt by my mother and siblings was terrible.

3 generations
Sandwich Generation members juggle family obligations.

It was mid-summer, and my daughter was about to leave to study abroad halfway around the world, while my son was due to begin college a few weeks later. As I helped my daughter finalize her travel plans, we discussed the very real fact that her grandfather would probably pass during her four-month absence, and it would not be feasible for her to return for his funeral. It broke my heart as she acknowledged this reality, and as I listened to my Mom say goodbye to her for my father.

Sandwich Generation Juggles Responsibilities for Parents and Kids

Shortly after my daughter departed, I remember sitting in my bedroom one evening feeling completely paralyzed about what to do. My sister had just called to say she thought the end was very near for my Dad, and that I should consider flying out to see him immediately. We had plans to drive my son to college to help him move into his dorm that next week.

I got on a plane the next day, not knowing if I’d be back in time to help with my son but feeling thankful that my husband could deal with all of that if I were still away. Suddenly that list of still-unpurchased dorm items didn’t seem quite so important.

My father had passed away, at home, about 30 minutes before I arrived. I was lucky enough to still get to see him and hold his hand one last time before his body left the house. And I was able to be there for several days with my Mom and other family members to help take care of many tasks, and to begin to plan his memorial that would be held about a month later.

But in a sadly ironic twist, and as an example of just how tumultuous Sandwich Generation parenting can be, on the morning that my father passed away, my Mom received a call from her doctor telling her that the lump she had felt weeks earlier, was indeed cancer.

As I headed back home to help my son move to college, I was already planning my first trip back to be able to be with my Mom for her initial surgery. My first season of empty nesting was one full of anxiety not only for my mother and her health, but for the my daughter’s safety and for a smooth transition to college life for my son.

While my Mom’s radiation treatments progressed, I thought I was handling all of life’s challenges pretty well. There were the expected sleepless nights here and there, but nothing seemed out of control. Eventually, it all caught up to me and I ended up in my doctor’s office with bronchitis and had an emotional breakdown with her. After discussing what I was dealing with, together we decided that trying some anxiety medication was indicated, and it helped me tremendously.

As I began talking to friends about this suddenly overwhelming period of life, I realized just how many were dealing with the exact same issues. There is the financial stress, with college tuitions to pay, missed work days due to caregiving, aging parents who need medical treatments or need to be moved into an assisted living facility or into their kids’ homes.

There is emotional stress, worrying about how kids are adjusting to school or jobs, and the realities of parents losing their freedom and becoming frail. There is marital stress, as you are learning how to juggle time spent between ailing parents, kids who still need support, and your spouse. I quickly learned through trial and error, and some moments of despair, that the two most important considerations during these demanding years are open communication and self-care.

2 Important Takeaways for Members of the Sandwich Generation

1. Communication is Key

Talk to your kids honestly about the their grandparent’s health, and if you foresee impending changes, discuss them early so that everyone involved has the time to plan for contingencies. Use technology so that kids can stay in touch with grandparents from afar. If your parent doesn’t have a smartphone, try to find someone near them that does, like a neighbor or caretaker, so that your own child can FaceTime or Skype to stay connected.

Discuss emergency situations in advance and consider travel costs and the logistics in case students have to miss and make up exams. This is another reason to stress to college students that going to office hours and making personal connections with professors is so important.

2. Prioritize Self-Care

It’s not at all difficult to see how caring for yourself gets put on the back burner when you are dealing with aging parents and your own kids adulting for the first time. As I discovered, the stress can become overwhelming and for some people, debilitating. Physically, it’s vital to make sure you are prioritizing sleep, healthy eating, and a little bit of exercise and mindfulness.

Identify ways that extended family members and friends can help lighten your load. Delegate responsibilities and learn to say “No” to things that can be delayed or are not important. Recognize how you deal with stress and reach out for help if you need it. Sometimes only a professional can really understand what emotions lie beneath common worries and unhealthy behaviors.

Moms often put their family’s needs first and neglect their own physical and mental health. This is especially true during the Sandwich Generation years. But how a mother manages her stress is often modeled by other family members. It’s paramount to manage your own stress in a way that provides your kids with a healthy example.

One year after my father passed away, my mother suffered a stroke a few weeks before my kids were headed back to college. I missed helping both of them move back to school so that I could help care for her. It was a stressful time, but this time I had much better coping skills in place. I  had people I could reach out to whom I trusted. My siblings and I were better prepared and my kids knew they could figure things out on their own while I was dealing with my Mom. I’m thankful to say she is doing much better this year, as my kids head back to their campuses.

The Sandwich Generation years are often unpredictable and sometimes awful, but with healthy coping skills and continual communication, they can also be a time of wonderful family connection, self-realization and deeper love.

The author of this post wishes to remain anonymous.

About Grown and Flown

Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan are the co-founders of Grown and Flown the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. They are writers (Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author), moms, wives and friends. They started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and are co-authors of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

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