Caregiver Sandwich: Caring for Your Loved Ones and Yourself

By Jody Gastfriend, LICSW. May 7th 2016

Caring for a parent, grandparent, spouse or loved one has its challenges and rewards. It can be gratifying as well as frustrating, with no clear roadmap on how to proceed.

More than 65-million people in the United States care for a parent or disabled adult, and of those caregivers, more than a third still have minor children living at home. Middle-aged adults often find themselves sandwiched between their children, pushing for more independence, and aging parents, who want to hold onto the independence they still have. And the caregiving doesn’t end once young adults leave the nest. According to Pew research, young adults are boomeranging back home at an unprecedented rate. While they may provide an additional pair of hands, there also is an extra mouth to feed. So if you are the one in the caregiving sandwich, how do you juggle it all without feeling depleted and guilt-ridden? It takes time, patience, forethought and compassion-for yourself as well as everyone else.

Sometimes, the best thing you can do is take a step back, breathe deeply, and evaluate your routine. Consider how caregiving rituals can be handled more effectively, without abandoning career, family and other aspects of life.  Here are few things to consider:

  1. Have Conversations: Early and Often. Unless your parents are completely incapacitated, you must include them in discussions about their care and accommodations. Approach decision-making from a place of love and respect. Many caregivers get frustrated by their parent’s resistance to help. But that resistance may be a need to exert some control, especially at a time when things feel out of control.  If you can help them understand why you feel they need a home health aide, a certain medical specialist, a safety-related home renovation or even a new domicile, you often get better participation in making the change. Be patient and recognize that your loved one has the right to make decisions, even if you think they are bad ones.
  2. Don’t try to do it all.  In many cases a nearby family member, perhaps you, will take on caretaking duties, thinking you can or should be able to handle it all.  Plus, Mom really trusts and relies on you and wouldn’t feel comfortable with a stranger in the home. Things may go along fine for a while, but as the picture turns more complicated, you may quickly become overwhelmed and ineffective.  Go ahead and step up if you’re the one who lives closest or has the most time or financial wherewithal to deal with an initial crisis. But then, assess the situation and quickly marshal your resources.
  3. Get help. Don’t absolve siblings, adult children and grandchildren caregiving from obligations. Often they’re in the wings, waiting to be asked to help or told what to do. If you’re the caregiver, speak up. Tell family members what you need and what you expect from them.  If you don’t have family resources, look outside the family for other resources to provide respite, run errands, prepare a meal.
  4. Take care of yourself. According to the American Psychological Association, many caregivers neglect their own health. They don’t eat properly, fail to manage chronic conditions, and sometimes forego their own preventive health care. Caring for another shouldn’t come at the expense of your own health. Take the time to eat properly, keep your own doctor appointments, take medication as directed, take a multi-vitamin and get some exercise, even if it’s just a daily walk.
  5. Sleep. Exhaustion puts caregivers at high risk for illness by lowering resistance to disease. In addition, tired caregivers who are themselves seniors are more likely to have accidents and falls. As a caregiver, you owe it to yourself and your loved ones to get seven to eight hours of sleep a day.
  6. Tap into Technology. Loneliness and isolation contribute to feelings of depression among caregivers. Even if you can’t go out with friends as much as you’d like, you can keep in touch through email, social media and programs like Skype and Face Time. In addition, face-to-face communication programs can be used to connect your loved one with far-flung family members and friends.
  7. Take a break.  Respite care is one of the most important stress-relievers for long-term caregivers. Yes, you can call on family and friends, but sometimes that won’t be enough or it won’t be possible. Familiarize yourself with community resources and be willing to use them. can be a great resource for in-home assistance such as companions, home health aides, and housekeepers.  You can also call your local Area Agency on Aging for information on transportation options, meal delivery services and adult day programs that might be useful. Once you’ve established regular respite care, do something good for yourself. Go to a movie, visit friends, have a date night with your spouse, or curl up with a good book.

To be an effective caregiver you must first recognize that caring for yourself is not a luxury—but a necessity. And if you get the help you need and the sleep you require, you may better manage your own stress and discover the benefits of caregiving along the way.  

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