“Sandwich generation” is a term that demographers have given to adults who are caring for both children under 18 and older relatives simultaneously. These days people are living longer, having children later, and requiring two incomes to get by: all of these factors result in more pressure on this generation, a pressed sandwich if you will. In recent years I have observed many of my peers become part of the sandwich generation. Their 20s are jolly and freewheeling, especially once they have gotten married. They now have a partner to travel and party with, without facing any parental scorn; their parents are still healthy and active, and relieved to see them settled down; and they don’t yet have children to look after. Once the babies come, the focus is on surviving those early years while still preserving some of their former identity, and many new parents rely hugely on the support of grandparents who look after the baby so mom can get back to work.
If you identify with this timeline, then you know there is a wonderful period when the kids are out of diapers and enrolled in school. Your parents are still mobile enough to help with school pick up or ferrying them around to classes and birthday parties, allowing you to dedicate more mental energy to your partner, career, and social life. But for many, this sweet spot ends abruptly when mom or dad’s health takes a turn for the worse. Stroke, heart attack, cancer, a fall…suddenly, the person who has taken care of you all your life now needs you to do it for them. The body which you once clung to for support is weakening before your very eyes, and you barely have time to process the emotions around this because there is so much else to do.
Like taking them to endless doctor’s appointments, with each doctor prescribing a battery of tests and scans, leading to even more appointments and hours spent in waiting rooms. And administering medication, as well as possibly hiring an aide to help them move around, then forcing your parent to adjust to having someone hover around them. And if this is your mom who was running her own house, or living with and looking after another elder, then you have to take over that portfolio as well. Meanwhile, you still have your own young children, job, and household to manage. In sum, it is a mighty load for anyone to bear on their shoulders.
Traditionally, this duty has been delegated to the woman in the family. When we lost my father-in-law a few months ago we received lots of visitors, many who shared their experience of caring for an elder until the very end. I was struck by how many women narrated a similar story: just as their children became old enough to look after themselves, their parents or in-laws started requiring their constant care. These women spoke of spending two, three years doing nothing much more than escorting them to doctors and seeing them through one health crisis after another. One said that only after both her parents and in-laws passed away did she find herself truly free of any caregiving responsibility, and spent one month abroad merely because she finally could.
The Indian tradition of filial piety and women’s commitment to that role is what keeps us looking after our elderly at home rather than an outside facility like Westerners are more likely to do. But who cares for the caregiver? Who is there to sustain members of the sandwich generation who are burnt out from having to be everything to everyone? Hopefully you have a few friends with whom a periodic venting session would lighten your heart, but there are also other ways to make this journey easier. Even if you are not currently a member of the sandwich generation, take heed of the following tips because a little preparation can go a long way in making an unknown future easier to navigate:
Don’t delay difficult conversations with your parents while they are in the right mind to have them.
Talk to your parents now itself about their future and their financial situation. They may still think of you as their kid who doesn’t need to know about such matters, but a frank discussion is a must if you don’t want to meet with any ugly surprises on top of dealing with a health crisis. Do they have a will? Can they purchase a long-term life insurance plan? How would they like to be cared for as they age? Passing away without having a will or financials in order can be devastating to descendants, making them sift through every scrap of paper they can find in the study or spend months going back and forth with banks. Explain to your parents that the best thing they can do for you is to clarify as much as possible now itself, and persist until you get answers.
If you’re in the thick of it now, don’t wait for people to offer help: ask for it, and delegate as needed.
The same people who step up to this role are the type who insist that they don’t need any help. But if you burn out, then everyone you are caring for will suffer as well. Take advantage of our strong Indian values of community and generosity. Ask a relative or close family friend to take over some doctor’s appointments or share shifts at the hospital so you can get some rest or time with your kids. Ask school parents if they can carpool, or have your kids over once a week so you can look forward to having a regular time slot to breathe and just be. Use WhatsApp groups to source everything from home health aides to meal delivery services. Remember that you have nothing to lose from asking, and most people are eager to help but may not know exactly what you need. Help them help you by asking freely and without formalities. There will be opportunities for you to return the favour in some way in the future, and this is how we build support systems.
The flip side of this is if you are a friend of someone who is struggling with caring for both elders and kids. Instead of asking “What can I do to help?”, think of things that you can just do without asking first. Tell them that you will pick up their kids on Saturday for a play date. Line up potential blood donors so you have people to contact when they next need it. If your kids are in school together, send them reminders about assignments and tests which could easily slip their overburdened minds. Send food or care packages without asking first if/what they want. This is also a useful tip for helping out parents of newborns! Most verbal offers of help will be turned down, but an unsolicited act is almost always welcomed and appreciated.
Don’t give up “indulgences” that make you happy.
If you’re the type to put others first, you probably think that any activity which is not productive is not one that you can justify with your current responsibilities. But if you don’t fill your own cup, no one else will. Even if it feels like an absolute indulgence, please make time for things that make you feel better, whether it’s a workout class, a massage, or a boozy brunch with friends. Your wards may have gotten used to you being endlessly available to them, but no calamity will befall anyone just because you took an hour for yourself. Remember that there is nothing selfish about self-care.
Of course I don’t want you to live in fear of being in this situation some day. It is important to strike a balance between living in the present and being prepared for the future. The best thing we could do to start is to talk about all of it. Sharing the pressure you feel with friends may bring up solutions you hadn’t thought of, and voicing your concerns to your parents can push them to make arrangements that will benefit everyone in the future. For now, if you are currently the filling in this pressed sandwich, know that you are not alone, and this too shall pass.