[For an introduction to this article, please read the previous posting.] 

Sandwich Generation caregivers

Minnesota Public Radio, April 17, 2008 by Nanci Olesen 

“I can hold her hand and you can feel that there’s something much deeper than words can ever express, so that’s how we communicate. But she’s slipping away.”

Mary Louise Clary is describing what it feels like to be with her mom. Her mother has had Alzheimer’s disease for more than 6 years. She still recognizes Clary, and they spend time together every day, holding hands.

Several years ago, Clary helped her mom and dad move from their home on Cape Cod back to Minnesota. Soon after that, she found a nursing home for her mom and helped her dad start his solo life at a townhouse across the yard from Clary’s home.

Clary has a son in high school and one in college. She’s recovering from breast cancer. She quit her job so that she could attend to her parents and be there for her boys. She’s trying to take care of everyone and yet let them have their independence too.

Although she doesn’t want to interfere with her dad’s privacy every minute, Clary needs to know that he’s okay. He gets Meals on Wheels every day. The meals come to a cooler that her dad puts out by his back step each morning. Clary can see the back door of her dad’s townhouse from her kitchen window.

“So every morning I look out to see if the cooler’s out there to see if he’s okay so that I don’t impose on him by constantly calling saying ‘Dad, are you all right? Did you get up this morning?’ But the cooler is the message,” says Clary, “I know if the cooler’s out, he’s okay.”

There are often tough decisions that caregivers need to make, while trying to help their parents feel like they’re still in charge. Women like Mary Louise Clary are called Sandwich Generation caregivers. They are women in their forties and fifties, who are sandwiched between caring for their own kids, caring for their elderly parents, and often holding a full time job.

It’s mostly women who are “sandwiched,” according to Kathryn Ringham, a caregiver coach for the Wilder Foundation’s Caregiver Services.

“Even when men are involved it’s the women who tend to do the most challenging tasks related to caregiving,” says Ringham, “The men typically get involved with the finances. They may be in the position to do some of the care coordination, whereas women are doing the dressing, the feeding and the more challenging personal care tasks.”

When people start caring for their parents, they often underestimate how long the commitment will last. Kathryn Ringham says that many people imagine it will just be a year or two that they’ll be helping their parents. But often it’s four years, or eight years, or more.

In order to manage the extra time and energy involved in caring for elderly parents, social workers and professionals who work with caregivers want sandwich generation caregivers to seek out the resources that they need to stay healthy.
One of the strongest issues that’s emerging is just the physical and emotional long-term consequences of being a caregiver,” says Kathryn Ringham, “Caregivers have a higher percentage of alcoholism, of use of psychotropic drugs and medications. They experience higher anxiety, higher stress.”

Ringham wants caregivers to know that they can find help with many of the physical needs that their parents have: a home health care nurse, or Meals on Wheels. They can also get counseling and support for themselves AND for their parents. They can get help with their parents’ finances. Many of these services are based on ability to pay.

Within the next twenty years, one in five Americans will be 65 or older. And they will need care. 80% of care to elders is provided by family and friends, according to The National Alliance for Caregiving.

According to The National Institute on Aging, the U.S. will need a 40% increase – 20,000 additional – social workers who are trained in the needs of elders and their caregivers.

Professionals recommend that each family devise a caregiving plan. They say the conversation can begin casually, at the next family gathering, or by email.

And they say that caregivers need to recognize that they need help.


Help Starts Here: from The National Association of Social Workers–(includes resource directory)
National Alliance for Caregiving
National Alliance for Caregiving: resource page
Wilder Foundation Senior Outreach
Family Caregiving Center: University of Minnesota
AARP: Family Caregiving
Survey of Social Workers Finds Families Ill-Prepared for Care of Parents
The work of taking care of family produces stress on time, finances and emotions: Kate Hughes/ The Independent
Generation juggles children, parents: essay by Anne McGraw Reeves: Newhouse News Service: March 4, 2008
Working Couples Caring for Children and Aging Parents: Effects on Work and Well-Being

Caring for Your Parents: a PBS documentary (April 2008)