Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Sandwich Generation

“Stand up in the presence of the elderly, and show respect for the aged. Fear your God. I am the Lord." (Leviticus 19:32, NLT)

If difficulties came in single incidences rather than their typical clusters, life might be more manageable.  I know I am not alone in that thought process!  This, in fact, may be exactly what birthed the saying, "When it rains, it pours."  Life does not happen in a vacuum, and because of that truth, we can often become a stressed mix of ongoing challenges.

Like so many of my peers, I find myself in the mix of "The Sandwich Generation".  What this means is that I'm in the throws of caring for young children while also caring for elderly parents.  The hallmarks of this season of life include running to help parents with things they are no longer capable of while also running to help your own offspring with their many demands.  It can entail mowing your parents lawn and then running your child to little league; driving parents to appointments followed by attending a school program; visiting mom or dad in the hospital and getting home in just enough time to help with homework; cleaning their rain gutters one day and taking the kids clothes shopping the next.  It is a season that can be difficult to treasure.

Attempting to handle this juggling act with grace is surely a challenge for anyone who encounters it.  But add to the mix of this scenario a child with special needs, and insanity surely can't be far behind!  The tug from these different directions and the expectations that accompany can be overwhelming.

Even so, there is hope.  Let me share a few thoughts on managing the sandwich generation with your sanity intact.

For starters, have a talk with your spouse and kids.  Since your first obligation is to them, lay out the situation before them in a way that they will understand.  Explain that everyone will need to pitch in together in order for you to be able to help your parents.  Impress upon them that they need to make you aware of any important dates or deadlines so that you can be there for them.  You may have to ask your spouse to step in on occasion for doctor's appointments or other duties you typically handle.  You may have to ask the children to cooperate with the way your spouse does things versus they way they are accustomed to doing them with you.  While challenging for the family, it may be a great opportunity for each member to grow in responsibility and self-sacrifice.

Speaking with your spouse and children may lead you to examine and clarify your boundaries.  (If you're a regular reader, you KNOW that I love the Boundaries books by Drs. Cloud & Townsend!)  You need to determine how much is too much when it comes to caring for your parents.  You also need to know how much your spouse and children think is too much.  Some people feel comfortable with having elderly parents move in with them, while others are fond of hiring a cleaning lady and meals-on-wheels to help their loves ones.  What will absolutely do you in is the conflict of you wanting to be at your parents' side most of the time while your spouse feels you should be home more.  It can also become a major problem if your parents expect you to be on call for them at all times when you have other priorities with your child.  Living a sizable distrance from you parents may only add to the strain.  It's essential that you work out what your limitations are before it becomes a problem and not after.

Of course, admitting that you can't do it all means that you will have to enlist help in caring for your aging parents.  This in and of itself can become contentious as adult siblings quarrel over who does most of the work and who is most readily available.  Unfortunately, each individual tends to think they're the busiest.  But having a child with special needs can often take you out of the equation.  One remedy might be working through a set schedule or being willing to hire professionals (cleaning service, lawn service, food delivery, medical alert service) if the funds are available.  Also, don't be afraid to ask neighbors, friends or your parents' church to pitch in if your are in need of other alternatives.  In enlisting help, you need to come to a place of acceptance that you can't always be there.

You will need to become flexible in the area of expectations.  Being in this position will require you to put aside your inner perfectionist.  A person cannot do it all and do it well.  Both your parents and your children can be taken care of satisfactorily without everything being flawless.  Remember that it's just a season of life, and it will not last forever.  Also, remember that your parents may not be where they once were mentally or physically.  Letting go of certain things or acceptance of their lot in life may take quite a bit of time.  Don't let it ruin your day if your parents complain that things are done to their liking.  It may be the one piece of their lives that they still feel they have control over.  Offer them compassion rather than succumbing to irritation.

Furthermore, you will have to work with them on their misgivings.  Things can't be as they were 20 or even 10 years ago.  A gentle detailing of the demands on your life may be necessary in order to confront your parents' assumptions regarding your involvement in their care.  You may have to literally spell out in detail what care of your special child involves.  Most grandparents, while loving, have no idea how taxing the average day with a special needs child really is.  And while even the best explanation may not accomplish what you want it to, it's important to let your parents know what they can and cannot expect as far as your involvement.  Once you have done that, move forward in peace, sticking to those boundaries.

All of this being said, do realize that your family of origin may be calling on you because you possess a certain level of expertise in managing medical issues.  This may sound burdensome, but it's really your opportunity to shine.  Because of your experience with your child's special needs, you are competent in deciphering medical language, treatment options, logistics and insurance coverage.  You may be extremely busy with your own children, but you could make a major difference in the quality of your parents' care by sharing that knowledge.  God doesn't give us these life experiences so that we can keep what we gain to ourselves!  (See 2 Corinthians 1:3-4)   When you are able, share your concerns, insights and opinions with both your parents' and your siblings.

Finally, come to a place where you can be resigned to the fact that life is what it is at this phase.  It's not fun on so many different levels.  But sweet moments are still there to be cherished.  Make it your mission to look up from this challenge and find the humorous, heartwarming and memorable times while they are still there.  This will give you the stamina to carry on with the demands at hand, and help you to be left with gratitude that you were able to be there in some way for your parents before they left this earth.

*For more insights on caring for aging loved ones, read Cherish the Days or other books by Martha Evans Sparks.


  1. this topic is very, very timely for me. thanks. I struggle with wanting to do whatever will help my parents and at the same time feeling like my plate is full already. I have not found that balance that you speak of. Example: One of thier drs. (a new one) called today and asked me to come to the next appt. I said, yeah, that would be great BUT, I'm at home with my son who has severe disabiilties...I missed MY dr. appt. yesterday cause the sitter canceled; missed the dog's dr. appt. last week cause the sitter canceled. ugh. guilt, resentment, on top of longing to do more. prayers would be appreciated...as well as more suggestions. (-: Tammy

  2. Barb, great blog post. You have been blessed with a ministry of "words!" Family is our priority and thank you for reminding us of that.