One in seven middle-aged Americans supports both an aging parent and children, according to the Pew Research Center. Dubbed the “sandwich generation,” this generation of adults in their 40s and 50s finds themselves sandwiched between caring for their aging parents and their children. It leaves many stretched thin between a full-time job, parenting responsibilities, caregiving responsibilities, and trying to maintain their marriage and a semblance of a normal adult life.
Nearly half of middle-aged adults have at least one parent over 65 and at least one dependent child. And with 10,000 baby boomers reaching retirement age every single day, the challenge is only accelerating.
Survival Tips for the Sandwich Generation
If you’re in the sandwich generation, or worry you may soon be, here are 10 tips to help you survive the demands of multiple dependent generations.
1. Put Everyone to Work
You can’t do everything. It’s time to start delegating more of the household work to your kids and to your parents if they live with you.
Start simple with tasks like doing the dishes and the laundry. By the time your kids are 7 or 8, you can teach them these sorts of low-skill tasks. As your children reach the double digits, they can help out with cooking as well. If they’re over 16 and have their driver’s license or permit, have them help with driving their younger siblings around.
Can your parents cook? Can they still drive? What about helping your kids with their homework? If they live with you, give them as many responsibilities as they can handle.
You can also delegate cleaning the house. Start assigning different family members different chores and tasks suited to their age and personality.
Be prepared for pushback. No one likes being given extra work. But if they’re going to live under your roof, they’re going to have to contribute, because you can’t do it all yourself. Beyond the much-needed help, you can also use household chores and responsibilities to teach your kids about money.
2. Move Somewhere Walkable
If the only way to get anywhere from your home is by car, that makes you and your spouse the sole sources of transportation for the entire family. You become the bottleneck.
Yes, moving is a lot of work. But it’s a one-time investment that will yield ongoing dividends in making the rest of the family less dependent on you to go anywhere. How much easier would your life be if the kids could walk or take the bus to school? If your live-in mother-in-law could walk to the grocery store and do the shopping for you?
The more amenities that are within walking distance of your home, the less you have to juggle everyone’s schedules. Your children and parents become more self-sufficient overnight, and you can get back to being a parent, spouse, and worker, rather than a chauffeur.
For aging live-in parents, this also helps preserve their independence longer, even after they surrender their car keys.
3. Assign Tasks to Your Adult Siblings
If you feel like all of the work of caring for your parents is falling to you, put your siblings to work.
If your aging parents move in with you, and you have siblings, ask them to take over every other conceivable task. Perhaps your brother can take over your parents’ finances and estate planning. Maybe your sister can coordinate all health-care-related issues, from doctor’s visits to prescriptions to driving Mom to and from her appointments. Whatever tasks you assign your siblings, it will be far less work than actually having a parent live with them.
Even if your parents don’t live with you, but you feel saddled with a disproportionate amount of care and support, wrangle your siblings to start chipping in more.
Keep in mind that your siblings don’t necessarily have to be local to help. Some tasks, such as taking over your parents’ finances, tax returns, and estate planning, can be done long-distance. Or, if that proves too difficult, many of these tasks can be batched and handled during your siblings’ in-town visits.
4. Consider an In-Law Suite
They go by many names: in-law suite, granny flat, accessory dwelling unit, carriage house, casita. Whatever you call it, consider setting up an independent living space for your parents with its own bathroom and kitchen or kitchenette. Your parents get to come and go as they please, and you get sanity and some precious boundaries and distance.
You could finish a basement or above-garage apartment, build a separate structure, or buy one pre-assembled. Costs range from a few thousand dollars up to $100,000 or more, depending on how large and upscale you want to go. To cover the costs you can use a home equity loan from Figure.com.
Beyond giving you and your parents some extra space, an in-law suite can prove to be a useful long-term investment. When your parents are no longer using it, you can always rent it as an income suite to house hack and cover some or all of your mortgage. And when it comes time to sell, the extra square footage and functionality can significantly boost your property value.
5. Research Local Support Services
What services are available in your community, both for aging parents and for children?
Many communities offer affordable, or even free, resources such as adult day care services and caregiving respite services to help ease the burden of caring for dependent parents. For example, the Administration on Aging oversees a range of nationwide programs to support older adults. If your parent is a veteran, they may also be eligible for support services from the VA.
There are even support programs that can pay you to care for your aging parents. Dig in and do some research; you may be surprised at the available programs at your disposal.
Sometimes even one night off from providing care is enough to help you regain a sense of control over your life. Local groups often organize events for older parents, caregivers, or both. Start looking for local and national programs that can make your life and your parents’ lives easier. There’s more support out there than you may realize.
6. Hire Help If You Can Afford It
No one says you have to provide care alone.
It doesn’t make you a bad parent, son, or daughter to bring in outside help. That help could come in the form of nanny through Care.com to watch your young children, a caregiver for your parent, or an all-around live-in domestic helper to cook, clean, and assist with your kids and parents as needed.
It doesn’t have to be enormously expensive. My friends Dan and Carrie hired a live-in nanny for two years through an au pair service when their son was born. They provided her a room and fed her when they made family meals, and her monthly stipend was around $900.
A helper could live with you or not. They could work full-time, or part-time. They might a full-fledged adult or a student looking for some extra money.
Don’t be afraid to bring in help if you can afford it. Your sanity and happiness have value, after all.
Not everything will get done, and it may not get done the way you want it to. Accept that.
Your job is not to do everything that comes your way, but to prioritize the most important tasks. Your parent may call you in a tizzy about their upcoming doctor’s appointment, their faucet leaking, their cat not eating, or their refrigerator breaking. The doctor’s appointment and the refrigerator are priorities; the leaky faucet and finicky cat can wait.
Even the things that need to be done right away may not need to be done by you. If the kids need to get to school, they don’t necessarily need you to drive them. They can carpool, take the bus, or walk. Send an Uber or a cab to take your parent to their doctor’s appointment. Call a maintenance service to have their refrigerator fixed.
You don’t need to do everything, and some tasks can wait or be ignored entirely. Get comfortable with prioritizing only the most important tasks and setting the rest aside without losing sleep over them.
8. Batch Your Cooking
Cooking meals every night can be exhausting. Instead, consider cooking several meals in advance.
Slow cookers are great for this, as are large casserole-style dishes. My friend Kyle prepares every meal for the week – breakfast, lunch, and dinner – on Sundays. Come Sunday evening, his refrigerator and freezer are packed with Tupperware containers. When he comes home after a long day at work, or when he has to work late and doesn’t come home until after dinner, no one stresses about it.
It takes him a couple of hours, but he can cook several dishes simultaneously. He might have three large baking dishes in the oven, a slow cooker chugging along, and a pan or two on the stove all at once. While he’s chopping onions for one dish, another is cooking in the oven.
If it sounds like a lot of work cooking several meals at once, enlist your kids to help. An extra set of hands can make all the difference.
A variation on this method is to have a regular food exchange with a few like-minded neighbors. Instead of cooking five different meals, cook an enormous portion of one meal, and get together with four friends to split up each meal into containers. You only have to prepare one dish, but you walk away with five separate meals.
9. Put Your Own Oxygen Mask on First
You may think you’re being selfless by putting everyone else’s needs before your own, but if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of anyone else.
If you’ve ever flown, you know the refrain: Put your own oxygen mask on before your children’s. It feels counterintuitive, even selfish and wrong. But by keeping yourself awake and alert, you remain able to help the people around you.
It’s far too easy to become burnt out as you juggle raising children, caring for an aging parent, managing a household, working a full-time job, and trying to be a good spouse. You wind up doing a poor job at each role, snapping at family and coworkers and losing focus and productivity.
Set aside time for yourself. Do activities you love doing. See friends. Go on dates with your spouse. Get eight hours of sleep every night. Exercise.
I can see you rolling your eyes, but if you don’t look after your own happiness and health, you will be no use to anyone around you. Period.
10. Practice Gratitude
It’s all too easy to feel resentful and overwhelmed when caring for multiple generations and trying to keep a career and marriage afloat. But giving in to these feelings won’t make you a better parent, caregiver, employee, or spouse – quite the opposite.
Every day, remind yourself that the reason you’re in this position is that you’re strong. You are healthy, able to earn money, and able to care for others. Your loved ones depend on you because you’re at the peak of your powers. Enjoy your time at the top. It won’t last.
All too soon, your aging parents will pass, and your children will leave the nest. Eventually, you will be the one depending on someone else. So revel in your independence and your hectic, family-filled life while you have it.
My mother has spent the last several years caring for her parents, one of whom suffered dementia and the other, cancer. Between working a full-time job, having a daughter transitioning from high school to college, maintaining her marriage, planning for her own nearing retirement, and caring for her parents, she’s been emotionally and financially stretched thin. But she has come through it, largely by utilizing the techniques above.
It’s not easy taking on so many challenges at once. But it starts with honest conversations – conversations with your aging parents, conversations with your siblings, conversations with your spouse, conversations with your children and, perhaps most importantly, honest conversations with yourself.
You can’t do it all. So decide what you can do, and delegate or defer the rest.
Do you care for multiple generations? How do you do it?