The Sandwich Generation

Middle aged adults are faced with different challenges than their predecessors and are often being pulled in several directions at once. You may know someone, or be someone, who is the primary care-giver for their parent or parents.

‘The ‘sandwich generation’ is the term used for this group of people who have to do it all.. ‘

More seniors living longer and staying at home longer means more family members need to help with their care. And it’s not unusual to find that these same care-givers have their own kids moving back home for career or financial reasons. Or to see some members of the sandwich generation having to raise their own grandchildren.

Exhaustion and burnout are two of the most frequent realities of the sandwich generation. They don’t always know about the resources that are available to them; they still attempt to have a life of their own and in many cases, a career. Makes for a busy life!

You may not fit exactly into the age groups defined as the sandwich generation, but if you’re juggling everything and everyone, you fit the definition.

Dawn Taplay, a recently retired physiotherapist who worked closely with elderly clients in their homes, says it’s often difficult for the adult children of aging parents to let go.

“They want to make things perfect for their parents. It’s OK to let some things slide; that’s just a fact of life. Maybe the aging senior isn’t eating as well as they used to. Or they don’t change their clothes every day. It’s alright if they don’t have a bath as frequently as they used to. You need to learn to ride with some of these changes. It’s important to take the time to learn about caregiver support groups, meet with family doctors and do some online research,” she says.

Information isn’t necessarily available at one’s fingertips, but the good news is that there is a great deal of support available. Talk to your parents’ family doctor or Interior Health. Taplay says they have a wealth of information on different types of services that are available to assist both their parents and themselves as they work through this challenging time in their parent’s lives.

During the many years she provided in-home assistance for seniors, Taplay dealt with cognitive and physical changes facing the elderly. Home visits usually involved both the adult children and the parents, at which time they can have a conversation regarding realistic responsibilities for the adult children, as well as what is happening in their own lives. In some cases, she says, seniors are actively living in their kids’ homes…and sometimes they’re babysitting grandchildren.

“All these generations living in one home can be very trying. The whole experience is a learning process and we learn by being taught, not just by failure. It’s very important to aim for quality time rather than quantity of time. Setting boundaries for their parents is important, and the sandwich generation needs to call in back-up in the form of caregiver support. Some of it is paid for and some isn’t,” Taplay said.

She also recommends that you go in baby steps…don’t overwhelm the aging parent. You cannot fix everything immediately. And she reminds us that while the senior is losing control, sometimes the negativity they project is because they still want to look after themselves.

Rebecca Aaron, a clinical nurse who works closely with seniors on mental health issues, says it is crucial to respect the elderly’s personhood.

“They are individuals and we have to respect their rights,” says Aaron, “We need to be sure we are doing what works for them and not what you may think is right. When they’re seeming difficult, it is due to fear and anxiety they’re experiencing.”

Aaron says the first step for children faced with their parents’ health problems is their family doctor. It’s critical to have a solid relationship with them, and to spell out in detail what you’re struggling with. Seniors often don’t know what questions to ask their doctors and need an advocate.

“There is a huge senior population and two geriatric psychiatrists in Kelowna. Sometimes people don’t realize their parents are having problems…they assume they are simply the signs of old age. But if your parent is not has happy as usual or they tend to isolate, they may be depressed even if they haven’t said so. Some key signs are a lack of interest in activities or other people. Go ahead and ask direct questions. Ask the parent ‘I see you’re not going out much. Are you feeling OK?’”

Kelowna Psychiatrist Dr. Valerie Jones MD, F.R.C.P(C) says it is vital that the sandwich generation take care of themselves first, a fact which is often overlooked.

“Establish clear boundaries with your parents or children. Adult children who have returned home should understand how long they are able to stay with you, and decide with them how to split the work load and share household costs,” Dr. Jones explains.

“Use a ‘fill your own cup first’ philosophy. You can’t help others if you haven’t cared for yourself. Fill your own cup, and whatever is left over can spill over to those you love.”

Dr. Jones uses an illustration from the well-known book The Profit. Parenting is compared to an archer drawing back his bow and eventually releasing the arrow. As a parent, your greatest joy is watching that arrow (your child) in flight.

“The same applies to elderly parents,” she says. “Let them know ‘this is how much I have for you’ and when your cup is empty, withdraw and fill it up.”

The sandwich generation may experience feelings of helplessness as they run about serving various levels of their family. They suspect they can’t do it all but feel they really haven't got a choice. So, all the hard work, advancement and financial or life planning they have undertaken appears to be for naught.

There are several places members of the sandwich generation can turn for help, education and information. The Central Okanagan Seniors Health and Wellness Centre is a valuable place to start. They offer a one-stop-shop to see many health-care providers and deliver education, support, assessments and short term interventions. They are in contact with your family doctor with regular updates, and they are a wealth of knowledge in terms of referrals to Interior Health and community programs, as well as offering a full slate of programs for seniors themselves.

The Alzheimer Society of British Columbia is a great resource, committed to building a dementia-friendly society where families are acknowledged and supported. And a family doctor is usually the first point of contact.

There is, as always, a silver lining. People spend more time with their beloved parents, and know that they are having a tremendous impact on their quality of life. In many countries around the world, it is common to find that grandparents live with their families, including grandchildren and even great grandchildren.


It provides countless opportunities for grandparents to pass along family history and colourful stories to the children, while the kids have a whole new audience to share the news of their day with!

The sandwich generation often see that long-held family traditions cannot be celebrated in the same way they used to. But families can create new traditions which work for everyone and enrich the lives of all the generations that are part of the family unit. It’s all about balance, and those who are primary caregivers must remember that they need to take care of themselves first.

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