Sandwich Generation Stress: 6 Ways to Cope While Raising Kids and Caring for Elderly Parents


“My boss yelled at me for missing my third day of work in two weeks, but  I had to  go help Dad. What choice did I have? His dementia is getting worse and  he keeps  forgetting to take his medication. Last night the neighbors found him  wandering  around in his pajamas. Two hours after I checked on him, my teen’s  assistant  principal called to tell me my daughter is being suspended for  skipping school again.  On top of all that, my husband is traveling a lot for  work, the house is a  mess, no one is paying attention to the dog, I’ve put on  25 pounds and I can  honestly say that I haven’t had one day of fun in the past  three years. I feel  like I’m going to disintegrate if something doesn’t give  soon.”

In  families where there are tremendous competing needs (like kids and aging  parents) these crises can become a self-perpetuating situation.


If the above scenario sounds  familiar, welcome to the “Sandwich Generation.” There’s almost nothing more  draining, stressful, emotional and guilt-inducing  than caring for an elderly  parent or relative while raising kids. I know what  this is like because I’ve  been there myself—and my life’s work has been devoted  to helping people who are  caring for elderly or sick relatives. If you are in  this situation right now,  you’re probably feeling pretty overwhelmed and alone.  I want to tell you that  regaining some peace and order in your life is  possible. You can learn how to  handle the obstacles and difficulties that  arise—and you can also let go of  some of the guilt, stress and other  energy-draining emotions that pull you down  and make you feel defeated and  exhausted.

Related:  How to stay sane while caring for your parents and raising your kids

I understand how alone,  frightened and unsure you can feel—and how cheated,  as well. Maybe this is that  time in your life when you thought all your hard  work raising a family and  advancing your career would have paid off. Instead,  your life feels out of  control, your family is a mess, your marriage is on the  rocks and you are very  close to losing your job. Well, let me tell you, you are  not alone! There are  approximately 20 million women in this country between the  ages of 45 and  56—and a whopping 10 percent of them are members of the Sandwich  Generation.  The numbers of hours and dollars they spend in the care and support  of their  children and parents are into the billions. (While we have many more  men than  ever before stuck in the Sandwich Generation, the burden still falls  to women  in most cases.)

It’s no surprise how this has  evolved over the past 20 years, given the  demographic changes in this country.  We have more women in the workforce,  increased life expectancy, couples having  children later in life and smaller  families—meaning fewer siblings are  available to share in the caregiving for  their elders. And for parents stuck in  the Sandwich Generation, the stress can  be extreme. It’s no wonder that  marriage and family therapists often refer  their clients to geriatric care managers  for support.

Related:  Kids acting out while you try to take care of your elderly parents?

My Mother Fell Down  Again—and My Kids Are Constantly Acting Out.  Help!

Children often act out when  their parents are under extreme pressure from  the numerous responsibilities of  taking care of elderly or sick relatives.  Acting-out behavior might occur if your  child is:

  • Anxious about what’s going on within the  family
  • Sad about the changes their  grandparents/relatives are experiencing
  • Feeling ignored because your attention is  elsewhere
  • Scared of what’s going to happen

Your child might also just be  plain angry and feeding off the stress in your  household—a house that might  feel as if it’s frequently in crisis mode. If this  is the case, it’s important  for you to step back, take a deep breath, evaluate  what’s going on in your home  and make a plan to take back control of your  situation. Preparing by creating a  plan will help make you feel stronger and  more empowered in your life—and less  like you’re living from crisis to  crisis.

What does this plan look  like?

1.  Stop the “Screech”…and Breathe. When it comes to crises,  I ask my clients all the time, “Is someone in  immediate or imminent danger of  death or injury? If the answer is “no” then I  tell them it is not a crisis. It  may be a major issue or major concern but not  a crisis. What happens in  families where there are tremendous competing needs  (like kids and aging  parents) is that these crises just become a  self-perpetuating situation.  Everyone is meeting “screech with screech” and  there is simply no need for it.  I advise my clients to take four very deep  breaths, clear their head and slow  down that “fight or flight” response. Take a  step back and then begin. They can  teach their kids to do this also by simply  refusing to go to screech.

Your parent’s crisis might  have come before your child’s or vice versa. One  may be feeding the other. If  you step back, take a look and stop reacting all  over the place you can break  it down to understandable, manageable pieces. I  can’t say it enough: Breathe. It sounds silly, but studies show  that people who  are under tremendous stress often forget to breathe. Steady,  mindful breathing  calms us down and gets crucial oxygen to our brains. That  clarity will help you  make better decisions.

Related:  How to maintain your sanity while you care for your parents and raise your   kids.

2.  No More “Shoulda, Coulda, Wouldas” I always say that  guilt is one of the most useless emotions—and the most  embraced one in the  world! We humans are great at feeling guilty for  everything. It takes a lot of  work to let go of guilt, especially for those of  us in the Sandwich Generation.  Because you are caring for kids, your aging  parents, your spouse, your home,  your community and your job, you probably feel  like you have a million masters  and can never please any of them. I believe  this is where we must understand  and tell ourselves daily that anything and  everything we are doing is helping  and that it matters. Identify where you might  need some support or assistance,  but don’t get stuck in the constant  “coulda-shoulda-woulda’s” because it is  just counter-productive.

3. Ask for Help…And Say “Yes” to It When someone offers to  help, say,  “Yes!” And sometimes you will need to  ask for help as  well—don’t hesitate. My clients are always amazed at how many  people will pitch  in if you ask. If you’re raising kids and caring for an  elderly or sick  relative, it’s also important for you to know that there is  help for you—both  for dealing with your children and your aging parents. The  key is to know how  to access that assistance.

For some, that assistance is  as close as your child’s school. School social  workers and guidance counselors  can be a good resource for finding assistance  and services for your child and  family. Often, people around you are dealing  with aging relatives as well. Try  reaching out—what’s the worst that could  happen? And don’t forget your faith  community. Talk to your clergyman and ask  him or her to send word out that you  need some help with chores, respite,  sitting with your elder or meals. People  love to help and will do so if asked.  The Area Agencies on Aging (in almost all  communities) can help with resources  as well. Go to to  find one in your area.

4. Include your child in the family  plan. I am a big fan of intergenerational learning—and there is nowhere   better to start than your own family. No matter their age, ability, maturity or   behavior, all children can help their parents care for their elderly relatives.   Whether it’s your five-year-old son bringing Nana a cup of juice, your teen   visiting with Grandpa and helping him walk out to the sun porch, or your  23-year-old  driving Aunt Rose to her doctor’s appointments, all kids can help  in some way.  Helping others makes us feel needed and wanted—and that we  matter.

I think it’s also important  to share with your kids about the changes that  are happening within the family  and with your aging parent. When kept “age  appropriate,” the information will  actually decrease your child’s fear, anxiety  and acting-out behaviors. For  example, if you have a grandparent who has  suffered a hip fracture and is going  to be staying with you for a while until  they heal, you might tell a 4-year-old,  “Nana has a boo-boo on her leg. We are  going to help her feel better.” You  can give your 14-year-old more  information:   “Nana fell in the driveway and broke her hip. She’s in a lot  of pain and  needs our help right now. She’s going to be staying with us for a  while until  she feels better. We really need you to sit with Nana after school  and help her  out until we get home from work.” Keep it age appropriate but do share—it’s important for kids to feel  needed and respected.

Related:  Doing too much for your kids—and everybody else?

There is very little we should not  involve our kids in when caring for aging  parents. Your kids always know more  than you think they do! And if they are too  young to understand it, they still  know something is happening and changing.  Even death, one of the scariest words  in the world for us humans, is something  kids can be part of. Because it is  part of the circle of life, kids should know  that it happens, is part of the  life cycle and not a silent subject.

While it is important to keep  things age appropriate when it comes to any  issue of aging, there are teachable  moments everywhere. So, for instance, while  it is unpleasant for a child to see  a grandparent who is agitated due to their  dementia, you can learn how to  decrease the agitation, have the child see the  grandparent when they are most  calm, and explain that their dementia causes  them to act differently than they  used to but they are still the same Nana who  always loved them. There are many  resources out there, including,  where one can learn about dementia, behaviors  and coping strategies.

5.  The 3 R’s:  Respite, Respite and Respite. When  you’re sandwiched in between all  this stress, it’s crucial to take some time  for yourself. Schedule “respite”  into your calendar. Meet a good friend for  coffee if you can, or call someone  to talk. Take a book to the beach, take a  walk around your block, go shopping  and do something fun for you.  Build  this into your plan of action because by doing so, you will be healthier   physically and emotionally—and prepared to keep going.

This may seem impossible  because you may be thinking, “Who will watch Mom  when she can’t be left alone?”  The answer is easy: You can ask a friend to sit  with her—or even offer to pay  for their time. Also, home care agencies have  people trained to care for your  loved one. They can provide respite so you can  get out  for a while. Most have two hour minimums and cost about $25 an hour. If  you can  afford it, do it! It is worth every penny to help you get refreshed and  keep  you sane—and to give your mind and body a break from caregiver mode.

Related:  How to stop living in “crisis mode” with your elderly parents.

6. Stay in touch. One of the tough  things  about being caught in the Sandwich Generation is that between caring for  your  kids, trying to keep your job and caring for aging parents, you have  little to  no energy left for socialization with peers. Socialization is  critical to all  of us for emotional and physical health—so reach out. Talk to  family and  friends, your faith community and try to reconnect with the groups  or clubs  that used to interest you. These are critical connections that will  sustain  you. Don’t let them drift away. Feeling isolated and alone is one of  the worst  parts of caring for others, and is also one of the hardest aspects of  elder  care. If you simply don’t have time or energy for these things at  present, make  it a goal for the near future. And if you have no one to talk to,  there are  many caregiver support groups throughout the country. Go to to find one near you.

I always say that “action  equals strength!” By creating a plan to handle the  situation of being caught in  the Sandwich Generation, you will be able to take  control of the chaos you are  swimming in. You will be able to breathe, calm  your house down, look at and  separate the issues of your children, aging  parents, marriage and yourself. You  owe it to your physical and mental health  to understand what is going on and how  to get the assistance needed to make a  plan that will benefit everyone in your  family.


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