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Squished in the Middle: Navigating Life as the Sandwich Generation

Last year, while on a family vacation, I noticed an underlying tension surrounding the major life-altering decisions faced by my fiercely independent 84-year-old grandmother and her children. This realization brought into sharp focus the complex and emotionally charged role many of us play in the Sandwich Generation.

The Role Reversal and Its Emotional Toll

As our loved ones age, they often experience a significant loss of independence and health, leading to dramatic shifts in their lifestyle and family dynamics. This transition can be particularly challenging as our aging family members take on a more dependent, almost child-like role, grappling with grief and loss as they try to maintain autonomy. Simultaneously, we, the caregivers, find ourselves stepping into a more parental role, planning, discussing, and organizing care plans—a process known as anticipatory caregiving.

The Unique Struggles of the Sandwich Generation

This shift can be incredibly challenging for both the parent and child. After all, you are caring for the very people who modeled, reinforced, or taught you how to be a strong black woman and the importance of working twice as hard.   Balancing the caregiving and support responsibilities can be especially tough for those juggling full-time jobs and caring for their children.  You may find yourself sandwiched between two generations relying on us for support: our children and parents or grandparents (aka "sandwich generation"). As a current or future caregiver, you are the meat and cheese or PB&J (… however you like your sandwiches), and each dependent person/group of people represents pieces of bread sandwiching you.

Practical Tips for Those Caring for Their Parent or Grandparent

Here are some essential tips to help you navigate this challenging journey:

1. Clarify Needs: IADLs and ADLs

Understanding the needs of your loved ones is crucial. Differentiate between:

  • Activities of Daily Living (ADLs): Basic tasks such as bathing, eating, moving (walking or transferring), personal hygiene, and toileting.

  • Instrumental Activities of Daily Living (IADLs): More complex tasks like managing finances, paying bills, meal preparation, shopping, cleaning, and medication management.

Clarify your loved one’s level of independence or dependence in each area of functioning.

2. Watch for Signs of Decline

Monitor their current level of functioning compared to their previous capabilities. If you notice a consistent decline over several weeks or months, it’s time to have an open conversation about it. Here are some effective communication strategies:

  • Use “I” Statements: Start sentences with “I” to express your observations and feelings.

  • Describe Your Observations: Clearly state what you’ve noticed without placing blame or judgment.

  • Express Empathy: Acknowledge that it’s difficult for them to accept changes in their health and for you to witness the decline. Show compassion for both their experience and your own.

  • Ask Open-Ended Questions: Engage them in discussions about their health and needs. Questions like, "What have you noticed about your health recently?" or "What kind of help do you think you need?" can be very effective.

3. Plan for the Future

If the decline in IADLs or ADLs is mild or temporary, start future planning. Work with your loved one to create an Advance Directive or Living Will. These documents outline who will decide if they cannot and specify their healthcare preferences, such as life-sustaining treatments or artificial nutrition.

Moving Forward Together

Navigating the Sandwich Generation isn’t easy, but it’s a journey filled with love, resilience, and profound connections. As a psychologist, I understand the emotional complexities involved in caregiving. This blog will continue to guide you, offering insights and tips to help you maintain balance and ensure your caregiving experience is manageable and meaningful.

Stay tuned for more tips on future planning and navigating the complex yet rewarding world of caregiving. Together, we can make this journey a little bit easier.


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