Marriage and Family — 10 April 2005
How to deal with being  ‘ The sandwich generation’

As the baby boomers approach their midlife years, some face several unanticipated family challenges. They may have planned to raise their children, advance their careers, gain some financial comfort and then actualize their deferred personal dreams, only to discover that the children have not been launched as scheduled and their aging parents are now needing their attention.

The “sandwich generation” is a term assigned to people (usually 45-55 years old), who find themselves in the middle between the needs of their children and those of their parents. The emotional challenges they face require major readjustment of their life plan and dreams.

Mid-life individuals have spent many years of giving. Giving to their children, their jobs, their life demands, and their community. They often yearn for some healthy times, in which they can stop giving to others and begin to invest in themselves. The sought after freedom from responsibility and energy output, is dreamed of as a time for reconnection with the partner and self- pleasing pursuits. This is a luxury well earned and for some clearly not meant to arrive that soon.

In the last decade more adult children are still dependent on their parents’ financial and emotional support. The young adults are either still at home or returned to their parents’ residence after college, job loss, or divorce. Other baby boomers have postponed marriage and are still raising teenagers. Neither group has had the transition years between the end of active parenting and the advent of ailing parents. The struggle they face is that of balance. How to give to their children, manage their own lives and attend to the growing needs of their parents.

In addition to the loss of freedom and privacy, the emotional demands from the children and the parents are sometimes overwhelming. Both the younger and the older generation fight for independence and control. The younger ones may not be ready yet, and the older ones may no longer be able to maintain the autonomy they seek. This becomes an ongoing emotional “tug of war”. Teens say, “I can already drive”, seniors say, “I can still drive”, while the mid-life generation fears for both. Often, attempting to deny an elderly parent driving privileges is fraught with great battles and pain. Driving is a symbol of autonomy and independence and giving it up is devastating to elderly people.

So the middle years for some, are not only devoid of peace, serenity and self- indulgence, but may become a stressful time of battle with family members for their own good. How often can you explain the benefits of wearing seat belts to youngsters who feel invulnerable and seniors who resist the inconvenience? How do you protect the young adults from taking risks that may damage them for life, and seniors from becoming prey to “nice” swindlers? How can sensibilities be enforced for two generations who have their own ideas and do not share yours? How can legal adults be prevented from taking actions you find harmful to them if they don’t choose to listen?

Essentially, the sandwich generation is expected to be in charge of two or more, still or anew, dependent people without the power to enforce the needed control.

Another major issue for mid-life people in relation to their children and their parents is that their love and compassion may hinder their effective management abilities. It is very easy to feel empathy for the adult child’s unhappiness about being unemployed and living at home, or for elderly parents’ need to continue and manage their own finances. When financial difficulties ensue, the love may propel the sandwich parents to give more money to quell the child’s insecurities, or to support their parents’ dignity even when they cease to manage their funds well. A non-related business manager would be clear about the hard line that needs to be taken with both groups. Tender emotions actually may end up compromising the best interests of adult children or elderly parents.

Very understandably, resentment may be created for the middle generation. The continued caring ends up taking away from the privacy, autonomy, and intimacy of the mid-life couple. This, of course, may also increase the strain in the relationship with the children and the parents. At a time that all should be relating as equals, the circumstances and health issues may render their power struggle incompatible with family joy.

Here are some suggestions for the sandwich generation:

• If you are not yet sandwiched between your children and parents, maximize your connection with each other, times alone, trips and actualize your dreams early.
• If you are in the midst of it, realize that demanding that your child become autonomous is a healthy parenting goal, not a punitive act. Plan with your child for his or her emancipation, help as much as you can, and enforce the specified deadlines.
• Seek as much non-family help as possible to assist your elderly parents with their finances, decisions, and choices. Recommendations made by doctors, accountants, lawyers, and other specialists are often better heeded.
• Decide how much time and energy you can invest to help your parents, so that you feel as a good son or daughter. Set a schedule. For instance, “I will come once a week for three hours to be with you and help you with all I can. We can also talk on the phone daily between 7-7:15 P.M. The more specific and clear you are, the better they will feel. Most seniors like routines.
• Help your parents find social and recreational activities that they like. Arrange for them to attend regularly. The attention they receive elsewhere will improve their mood and free you to have a happier relationship with them.
• Above all, carve couple time for yourselves. You must keep your relationship close and healthy, in order to be stronger and more effective in addressing the needs of your children and your parents.

April 10, 2005

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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