Usually life is goes along in more or less a predictable fashion. You have a set schedule for work, you have developed a rhythm in your home life with carpool, dinner, homework time. And then you get what Gaily Sheehy defines as "the call."
Life as you know it changes radically.
According to a 2013 poll (PEW research) almost half (47%) of adults in their 40s and 50s have a parent age 65 or older and are either raising a young child or financially supporting a grown child (age 18 or older). Even without a medical crisis women are typically providing support to two generations. Family caregiving is rewarding, stressful, important, exhausting, and ongoing.
Why are so many women the designated family caregivers? Women are relational. We are socialized to connect and provide care to our families. This is a wonderful gift and although it is not exclusive to our gender, it is an area of increased attention as our parents are living longer and not necessarily healthier. The term for this population was defined by Carol Abaya in 2006 and is widely used in caregiving circles as "the sandwich generation."
Here is the menu:
- Traditional Sandwich: People caring for aging parents while raising their own children.
- Club Sandwich: People in their 50's or 60's caring for aging parents and adult children/or grandchildren. Also people in their 30's and 40's caring for aging parents, and grandparents, while raising their own young children.
- Open Face Sandwich: All other caregivers who provide volunteer support to family, neighbors, friends.
What is it like living a sandwiched life?
In answering "the call" it feels like a crisis, but really it is more like a marathon. The average length of elder care following a medical crisis is four and a half years. When our family is in crisis, the typical response is to be on high alert--set everything aside to focus on the problem. Sleep, eating, self-care, become less organized to mobilize for the crisis. Now imagine that this response has to extend for at least four years.
The formula has to change or there will be another crisis, this time "the call" will be the caregiver because of burn out.
Nobody likes a burned sandwich. The psychological risks are depression, anxiety, and isolation. The medical risks are serious illness from extended sleep deprivation and skipping necessary prevention tests that can alert the caregiver to early illness.
You need more ingredients in your sandwich. Namely support for the care giver. One woman nicknamed she and her sister "the peanut butter and jelly girls" to celebrate their commitment to their parents and each other in caregiving. Finding useful and reliable support as soon as possible is the prevention plan for all caregivers.
Gail Sheehy has written an amazing resource for all types of caregivers. Passages for Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence, delivers on the title's promise. Whether you are already providing family caregiving or not, you will find something of value. Sheehy provides thorough research in an easy to read format that offers creative solutions to family caregiving, with particular attention to care for the caregiver.
You are just one click away from Website resources that can pinpoint support groups and online menus for special dietary problems, and inspiring stories that will lift your spirit during the difficult days of family caregiving.
As we continue to celebrate National Women's History Month let us all make a commitment to reach out to friends who are living like a sandwhich with a meal, gift card, errand, or a listening ear. If you are actively providing family caregiving you have our permission to give yourself a break, you are worth it.
Do you have a story about family caregiving that you would like to share? Please leave a comment.