We’re getting married later in life and having children in our late
30s and early 40s. And as our kids grow, our parents age. The term coined
for those in between is “the sandwich generation.”
“It’s that mid-range age group, around 40 to 65, who have school-age
children and older parents who—partly because of technology and
medical breakthroughs—are living longer but also might not be so
well,” says Sandra Heller, a senior living advocate and placement
specialist and owner of Compassionate Senior Solutions in Los Angeles.
“The problem is many are outliving their money, and the costs of
senior living and care can be astronomical. It falls on the adult children,
who are also probably still working for a living, to figure it all out.
And it’s very stressful for them.”
“Even if you don’t work outside the home, you still run your
household and take care of your family. If a parent is ill, you feel like
you need to be there to speak with doctors and understand what is going
on,” says Theresa Ferry, executive director of Torrance Memorial’s
Home Health department, which helps seniors and their families transition
from hospital to home.
“It’s a real tug-of-war, plus you deal with your own feelings
of guilt," says Ferry. "You can’t just take off from work
to rush to the hospital or doctor’s office; you have to manage your
kids, your relationships and your own life. There are layers of responsibility.”
Robin Antrim Seaber, whose parents Jim and Deri Antrim are Patrons of Torrance
Memorial, found herself extremely squeezed between generations as she
witnessed her mother battle breast cancer and undergo a double mastectomy,
suffer several strokes and falls, and ultimately a hip fracture. Meanwhile,
Seaber tested positive for the same BRCA2 gene as her mother and had surgeries
to remove her ovaries and breasts, prophylactically. Seaber’s younger
daughter Kristen, 26, discovered she has the BRCA2 gene and is in the
middle of the same process.
Oh, and older daughter, Lauren, 30 (who is not BRCA-positive), is expecting
her first baby in May. Seaber describes it like this: “It’s
a dance we do, between your parents, your children and your own health.”
Each of these women has learned lessons and made and witnessed mistakes.
Here’s what those who are inside the sandwich, or on one of the
ends, can learn from them.
Trying to do it all just doesn’t work
Seaber and her family moved from Southern California to Denver 15 years
ago. “I have always been super close to my parents, my mom especially,”
she says. “She was diagnosed with adult onset type 1 diabetes at
35, and has been on insulin—but fairly healthy. She plays tennis
competitively and has this very positive energy.
“But then five or so years ago she started having small strokes that
were chipping away at her health. I’d fly home and stay several
days, fairly often.” Seaber was dealing with her parents and their
needs, and trying to stay present for her daughters and husband Garry.
They all said, “It’s all OK, we’re good.” Then
her mom fell and broke her hip.
“When Mom went back home she had care, but still I know how much
she needs me. I’m a fierce advocate [for her]. I seem to have unending
energy when I’m out in LA to do whatever I need to do. I remember
lying in Mom’s hospital bed and us just laughing. She was so happy
to have me there. But when I fly back to Denver, I’m exhausted.
“I’ve learned I have to be my top priority and my own best
advocate,” she says. “And I’ve learned to ask for help,
and try to keep a balance in my social life. Sometimes it just takes too
much energy to go to a party or dinner and always be watching my phone.”
Taking care of business: Finding a living situation
Heller quotes columnist John Shore: “One of the most emotionally
complex and difficult things a person can experience is taking care of
an elderly parent.” She adds, “Then throw in the complexities
of siblings and family dynamics, raising high school and college-age children
and possibly missing a lot of work. You end up not having enough time
to spend with your parent, much less taking care of their medical needs.
It’s tremendously emotional.”
And what Heller sees is adult children who don’t know what to do.
“Kids will try to assuage the guilt they feel by looking for a swanky
place for their parent.
Decide what you and they can afford,” she advises, “and find
a place where they can be social and comfortable. That can be in-home
care, a board and care home (usually around six residents) or a larger
facility, which doesn’t have to be expensive.”
One of the hardest things an adult child might have to deal with is to
convince a parent to move to a facility, Heller says. “They have
visions of the nursing homes of the past and think you are putting them
there to die. But today’s communities offer endless activities,
outings, lectures and the celebration of every holiday imaginable. Some
people even find romance.” Many people, Heller says, wish they had
If you choose home care, Heller also advises, make sure your parent isn’t
watching too much TV and isolating in their home. “Loneliness has
been proven to be one of the most debilitating situations as we age. And
remember, home care comes with a price,” she adds. “If you
underpay, you won’t get the quality and reliability you need.”
Another important piece of advice for those in the sandwich generation:
Involve your kids. “There’s a reason so many retirement communities
are situated next to nursery schools. The elders just light up when they
see a young face, and bringing your children into the situation helps
build respect for those elders,” Heller says.
Communication is key
The transition from hospital to home—or home to outside—is
what Ferry and the Torrance Memorial Home Health department help manage.
They provide skilled services, therapists and social workers for the parent/patient
and their families.
“What I want people to know is while such a transition can be new
and scary, sometimes it’s not that extreme,” Ferry explains.
“Some families just need us to keep them informed, to call on a
regular basis. We provide that, because we know what it feels like to
be in that sandwich. We help take families through care management and
talk them through all the options,” she adds. “And families
can start that at anytime. Sometimes they reach out even before our services
are needed, when they first see a parent declining.”
Also, Ferry says, “Parents need to make their wishes known before
they get sick or get to the point where they can’t take care of
themselves. It’s the best way to not become a burden to your loved
ones. And adult children need to help them with that. Help them prepare
documents, like Five Wishes (fivewishes.org) or a living will, so they
know what to do if their parents become ill or incapacitated.”
One of the biggest problems Ferry sees is neither the aging parents nor
the kids know how to ask for help. “Parents don’t want to
be a burden, and so they try to keep doing everything on their own.”
And finally, she advises adult children to find a support group, “even
if you can’t imagine finding time for still another thing to do,
you have to think beyond the crisis. Otherwise people burn out and start
taking out their frustration on siblings, doctors and nurses and even
the parent. That kind of pressure can lead to more mistakes.”
For more, see
Tips for the Sandwich Generation.