What is it like to be an adult parent in the sandwich generation? Five years ago, I became part of this generation. I was a single mom to a 16-year-old daughter, working full time, going to college, and caring for multiple aging family members. I was making peanut butter and jelly lunches in the morning and delivering meatloaf dinners at night.
Now, my husband and I have 4 adult children between us, 2 of them still living at home. My mother may live 200 miles away, but I provide support to her on a daily basis in several areas. I have juggled schedules, exhausted myself, worried about everything, added more responsibilities to an already full plate, and come very close to sandwich generation burnout. And I’m not alone in this.
For less privileged caregivers—those with such stressors as financial strain, barriers to good care, and lack of social supports—the challenges become exponential and often crushing.-Kate Washington, Already Toast: Caregiving and Burnout in America
In this article, I’ll define who is part of the sandwich generation, why, and how many families are affected. I’ll also provide some answers to how sandwich generation adults can:
- support and help launch their adult children
- care for their aging parents with respect and compassion
- practice self-care
Who are sandwich generation parents?
In 1981, to present demographic data and show the lack of available support, social worker Dorothy A. Miller coined the phrase “sandwich generation.”
These adults, typically aged between 45-65, are caring for aging parents and raising younger children or have adult children living at home. The sandwich generation supports both their parents and their children financially, physically, or emotionally.
There are three different variations:
- Traditional sandwich generation: adults in their 40-50s providing for elderly parents and adult children
- Club sandwich generation: adults in their 50-60s caring for aging parents, adult children, and grandchildren or adults in their 30-40s who have younger children, elderly parents, and aging grandparents
- Open-faced sandwich generation: adults who are non-professionally involved in caring for elders
How many adults are in the sandwich generation?
In 2013, according to Pew Research Center, 47% of people in their 40-50s were supporting an adult child or raising young children and also had a parent aged 65+. The numbers increased during the global pandemic in 2020, when nearly 52% of US adults aged 18-29 were forced to move back in with their parents.
About 15% of these middle-aged adults financially support both generations—children and parents. Moreover, 38% of this sandwich generation indicate that both their parents and children rely on them for emotional support.
What has caused the sandwich generation?
Decades ago, children moved out of their parents’ home after graduating from high school, going to college, becoming employed, joining the military, or getting married. Now young adults are staying in school longer and delaying setting up their own households.
The Great Recession and COVID-19 have contributed to increased unemployment, colleges closing, and a rise in stress, forcing adult children to move back home. Uncontrollable economic conditions are hurting younger workers, and many parents feel a responsibility to help them.
Young adults who delay having children until they’re older have also contributed to the rising number of middle-aged people having younger children and living parents. With people having kids later, the probability of facing responsibilities for the care of both younger kids and elderly parents has increased.
Sandwich generation adults are also financially providing for their aging parents, many of whom rely solely on low government incomes, have inadequate retirement savings, and incur substantial medical expenses.
More people are living well into their 90s, and a great number of them live independently, but not all can meet their needs. Physical caregiving, financial and legal planning, medical care, housing and safety issues, and daily self-care are areas adult children may be involved in.
Coping with sandwich generation challenges
Sandwich generation adults are pulled in many different directions. They are in the middle of their own careers and personal lives while trying to balance the needs of both children and parents. Adult children of the elderly, who are “sandwiched” between their aging parents and their own maturing children, are subjected to a great deal of stress. These areas of stress can include time, exhaustion, worry, and responsibilities.
Care demands are determined by the age of those receiving care. The temporal demands of childcare decline as children age. Younger parents who are more likely to have younger kids requiring more hands-on care end up spending more than 2 hours each day on childcare compared to parents aged 45-59, who spend an hour. This is to say, sandwich generation caregiving challenges are more difficult when kids are underage.
The National Institutes of Health reports that 66% of the caregivers in this generation are women and that mothers are more likely to leave the workforce to become a caregiver than fathers are. Add to this the numerous responsibilities that mothers (or single fathers) already have, and the stress level for a sandwich generation parent can become incredibly high.
It’s vitally important for adults of the sandwich generation to recognize their place within these relationships. That place should be one of guidance and providing care, not attempting to control a situation where three different generations are trying to coexist.
How to support your adult children and help them launch
My husband and I have one son in college and another transitioning to independence. When you have an adult child still at home or one who moves back in, it’s important to be upfront about expectations in order to help them launch from the nest, especially financially.
Talk with your adult children about:
- living within their means
- saving for the future, both for emergencies and retirement
- creating a budget by tracking spending for 1 month
When circumstances are beyond their control, be sensitive to what your adult child is going through. Be careful not to do too much for them, though.
How did you learn at their age? By living and making mistakes. You can advise and offer help to your adult child, but don’t try to control them.
How to show your aging parents compassion and respect
For 25 years, I have managed my parents’ finances, which was a mutual decision to help them cope in their older years. Over time, my responsibilities have changed and increased. On any given day, I can be a financial planner, long-term care coordinator, patient advocate, physical caregiver, driver, and psychologist.
This is when awareness and compassion help to maintain healthy relationships and where talking with your parents can foster better understanding. Start by asking your parent(s) how they want to spend their later years instead of telling them what they need. Being in control for years, many aging parents find it hard to let go of things like driving, scheduling doctor appointments, or deciding what to eat.
Have conversations before they are needed. Talk with your parents about things like:
- end-of-life planning, including hospice care and final arrangements
- financial and legal planning
- long-term care, including assisted living and nursing homes
- how to maintain a level of independent living
In an ideal situation, the care of aging parents includes a sibling who is a doctor, one who is a lawyer, and one who is an accountant. In my and most other cases, all these areas are managed by one adult child.
Self-care tips for sandwich generation caregivers
Given all the responsibilities and expectations, it’s extremely important for sandwich generation adults to take care of themselves. Here are some practical tips for achieving that.
Remember that you’re just one person. To manage your time effectively, make a list of priorities to coordinate multiple schedules. Find a method that works for you, like a chart or an app, to keep track of appointments and activities.
One thing I find beneficial is regularly managing clutter. Having a minimal amount of stuff lets me manage my household in a short time.
My time is then better spent by, for example, sitting with my father at the end of his life and not thinking about a to-do list. Since I don’t have to focus on things, I can focus on people.
The most basic ways to avoid exhaustion are getting enough sleep and eating healthy. By making these a priority and recognizing you have a limited supply of energy, you value yourself.
Find ways to enjoy daily life, invest in your emotional and mental well-being, and set boundaries for what you can and cannot do. Take a respite from caregiving before you reach a breaking point. You have to take care of yourself, otherwise, you can’t take care of others.
When you’re the adult sandwiched in the middle of a multi-generational family, your level of worry is off the chart. Focusing on gratitude helps, as does not dwelling on the uncertainties of the future. Realize this is just a temporary season. Doing these things can help you worry less about the circumstances you are in and focus more on giving care.
Making plans with your children and with your aging parent will help alleviate worry, as well. You want to avoid as many surprises as you can, so having conversations like those mentioned earlier and getting plans in place for needs or major events will give you more peace of mind.
As a caregiver, you have to remember you can’t do it all. Delegating is your best ally. Ask your teen or adult child to help, and be specific. Instead of saying, “Please help out around the house,” ask them to “wash, dry, and put away the towels” or “plan, cook, and clean up after a meal.”
Find community support groups that offer assistance. Meals-on-Wheels can help provide additional meals for your parents. A transport service can help with medical appointments. Look into a family share program through a local senior or community center, which can assist with house cleaning, yard work, or home repairs.
Many families are multi-generational now, and the parents in the sandwich generation are challenged in many ways. If you find yourself in the middle of the sandwich, remember this is a temporary season. Use sensitivity and accountability to help your adult children launch in a responsible way.
Show compassion and respect to your aging parents, allowing them to maintain as much control as possible over their daily life. Also, remember to take care of yourself by managing your time wisely, resting well, finding gratitude, and asking for help.