Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Psalm 90:1
Today, more baby boomers are not only caring for their own children but for their elderly parents at the same time. Such a “bookend” scenario is so common that it has its own name — the sandwich generation.
The term, coined in the 1980s, holds even more meaning now as people are living longer, young adults are delaying marriage or waiting longer to have children, and for the first time the senior generation has far fewer children to rely upon. Parents with children or youth in the house usually have frantic schedules involving sports and other enrichment opportunities.
According to the nonprofit Pew Research Center, two out of every eight American baby boomers are raising a child while providing assistance to a parent. Other research suggests between half and two-thirds of adult women will care for elderly parents or in-laws at some time in their life.
What does it look like?
Yet, in reality, this dual-demand image is too simplistic. While caring for children and parents simultaneously, many people in middle adulthood find themselves dealing with additional complexities such as:
- a spouse with failing health;
- other obligations such as full-time careers of their own;
- having to quit their jobs to be full-time caregivers;
- grown children who move back home with emotional or financial needs;
- raising grandchildren or providing regular child care;
- being an only child with full financial and care responsibilities for aging parents; and
- providing college tuition and nursing home costs at the same time.
On the positive side, the beauty of a family that spans several decades is a gift of love, as generations learn from one another and share a part of the same story. Cross-generational interaction enriches the lives of all those involved with joy and satisfaction. As families communicate and involve everyone in decision-making or share in household responsibilities, like mutual trust and encouragement, a sense of belonging is bolstered.
However, caregiving is rarely a temporary situation. Due to longer lifespans and medical advances, caregiving often goes on for several years. Emotional, financial and relational balance is stretched to the limit. Many in the sandwich generation face uncharted territory for which they are not prepared, as they seek to maneuver the best course for their particular situation. Stress, fatigue, burnout and demands mount up and conflicts often arise.
Aging parents and caregivers alike may not handle this radical role-reversal with kindness and sensitivity. A spouse or child may feel neglected or resentful. Family disagreements or even estrangement with uncooperative siblings are not uncommon.
A profound sense of loss, guilt, shame, anxiety and even fear, are typical reactions, especially for those providing care over long distances. It can be frustrating and discouraging to absorb information or make decisions with doctors, professional caregivers, financial experts and even siblings, without the benefit of face-to-face communication. Finding the time and money to make regular trips to care for aging parents often requires juggling complicated schedules, difficult choices and sacrifices, especially when relationships and activities back at home are tugging at the caregiver.
It’s not unusual for those of the sandwich generation to speak of the “crisis moment.” They will tell how life is hectic, yet somehow manageable, given the complexities named above. Then something happens. Mom falls and breaks her hip or a serious motorcycle accident puts a teenage son in intensive care. A new kind of reckoning faces each family member. Physical, emotional and financial demands take on a new reality.
A common lament is, “I feel so isolated. I don’t think anybody understands what we are going through.”
How congregations can help
Include members of the sandwich generation by name in the prayers during worship. Add their names to the prayer team’s list.
Offer learning opportunities for those approaching middle adulthood, helping them prepare for what may lie ahead. Ask those with personal experience, such as a financial adviser, professional caregiver or a youth, for advice or to comprise an advisory panel.
Form a “care team” specifically trained and mobilized to respond to the needs of sandwich generation families. Provide the occasional meal; offer to take the elderly parent out for lunch or to the zoo or community activity; mow their lawns; invite the children to activities with your family; offer a few hours of time to provide companionship and attentive presence while caregivers take a much needed break. Be sensitive to the needs of church staff, especially your pastor, who may be facing the challenges of the sandwich generation while also caring for the congregation.
Where possible arrange for someone from the local ELCA congregation to visit or call the elderly adult who is living in another city or state.
Encourage cross-generational activities at church.