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The Sandwich Generation and Their Parents' Tarnished Golden Years

Dec 6, 2007
Parents of Baby Boomers look toward their sixties, seventies and eighties as golden years, with the chance to enjoy the fruits of their labors. But what happens when those days become tarnished gold? What if nothing you or your parents do can restore the shine you all were expecting? This is what faces the Sandwich Generation each year when their parents are diagnosed with Alzheimer's, senile dementia or stroke.

Today, dementia of some kind has affected 14% of Americans over the age of 71 and the incidence is rising. Caring for these seniors generally falls to their Baby Boomer children; studies indicate that one in four families now take care of an elderly parent. Often the caretakers are women. According to a recent AARP study, 8.7 million American women aged 45 and older are caring for both aging parents and growing children. How they, and their brothers in some cases, cope with these demands is of increasing concern.

Now even Hollywood has begun to look at the dilemmas faced by these Boomers. With the Academy Awards season right around the corner, the buzz is out about "The Savages," a film looking at Sandwich Generation reactions to an estranged, aging father. Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman play siblings, Wendy and Jon Savage, who can be described as Open Face Sandwiches - suddenly thrust into caring for their abusive father while they deal with on-going crises in their personal and work lives. How they respond, and what they learn about themselves in the process, mirrors the situation for many Baby Boomers.

If, like the Savages, you are propelled into caring for a difficult parent, undoubtedly you will sacrifice many things - time, sleep, emotional stability, money, energy, days at work, dreams of your own. Because of these extreme pressures, family caretakers report having some kind of chronic condition at more than twice the rate of non-caregivers and research suggests that this additional stress can shorten lifespan by up to 10 years. Here are seven tips to help lighten your load as you attend to your infirm father or mother.

1. Give up your ideas of perfection and be realistic about the path ahead. You will not have the benefit you had imagined of involved, wise, old parents in your life. Acknowledge that the dementia will steadily increase and your parents will become less and less responsive to you. Be respectful of your parents' dignity even as you transfer control over their circumstances from them to you.

2. Evaluate your options as you keep an open mind. There is not one correct solution for everyone in your situation. It is helpful to hear from others what they have learned but you are still the only one walking in your shoes.

3. Look for resources in the community to help you. Recognize that you can't, nor do you have to, do everything yourself. Contact local gerontologists, talk with hospital social workers, meet with health care aides, visit nursing homes, join a caregiver support group.

4. Be honest with your siblings about their responsibilities. Even if you've been in conflict when them in the past, resolve to have an on-going dialogue now and be firm about finding a way to share the caregiving duties.

5. Take care of yourself to decrease the burnout that is common. A good support system gives you the opportunity to express your emotions and receive comfort. Set aside time for rest and relaxation, difficult as that may be to arrange. A sense of humor will get you through some tough times, as you laugh through your tears.

6. Look at how your past relationship with your parent has affected your present way of life. This is especially important if your parent was abusive when you were growing up. Decide to let go of the tendency to define your behavior today as a response to the memories you hold of your childhood. Make up your mind to make changes in your behavior that benefit you now.

7. Grow up. As you take on the complex chores of caregiver, you are the one ultimately making decisions about your own life as well as that of your parents. Both Wendy and Jon Savage matured as they reconnected with each other and their father, making dramatic changes in their lives after his death. They were able to trust themselves and take chances to achieve what they wanted, both professionally and personally.

Just as in the aptly named children's game, tug-of-war, you in the Sandwich Generation may feel like you are in a battle zone - pulled simultaneously from both sides and stretched to the limit in the middle. It is a struggle to sense the breaking point, which must be done to protect yourself for the long haul. It's not easy to put limits on the connection with your aging parents, but you need to place that relationship in the context of the rest of your life. Trust yourself as you design a plan that works for all of the family, yourself included.

(c)2007, Her Mentor Center
About the Author
Rosemary Lichtman, Ph.D. and Phyllis Goldberg, Ph.D. are founders of http://www.HerMentorCenter.com, a website for midlife women and http://www.NourishingRelationships.Blogspot.com, a Blog for the Sandwich Generation. They are authors of a forthcoming book about Baby Boomers and family relationships. They offer free newsletter Stepping Stones.
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