July 16, 2013

By Christopher Kelly, MEd

I have never liked the term “Sandwich Generation.” I feel the metaphor fails to truly validate the collective challenges faced by family caregivers, adult children and aging parents, because all three segments of the family system simultaneously cope with unique periods of transition and reinvention.

Most sandwich generation publications focus primarily on the needs and challenges of the family caregiver. This is both understandable and needed, given the enormous challenge that comes with caring for both young adult children and aging parents.

Yet, I would argue that this is also a challenging time for the young adult children and aging parents. In spite of that, these generations are often positioned by experts as the source of the problem. I wonder what it must be like for young adults and grandparents to read about the sandwich generation. I also wonder if the sandwich generation concept might actually model or reinforce the lack of multigenerational understanding, empathy and planning that is needed for successful family transition and growth.

Do all parties realize that they are all going through a simultaneous transition? If so, would this be a source of strength and promote coming together as a family unit?

I thought it would be interesting to review peer-reviewed literature, social media, and advocacy spaces to develop a more balanced picture of the needs and solutions for the entire family system when multigenerational transitions collide.

Dual Caregiving During Mid-life Transition

“Many of us help older, sick, or disabled family members and friends every day…we are glad to do this and feel rewarded by it, but if the demands are heavy, we can also become exhausted and stressed. We think we should be able to handle caregiving roles on top of busy work and family schedules and begin to feel guilty and depressed as our stamina wanes.” – Family Caregiver Alliance

While reviewing the PR newswire, I came across the term “dual caregiver” . I really like this term because it accurately captures the challenges that family caregivers face when trying to balance parent, family, and career needs at the same time. Common challenges for dual caregivers include:

·       Adjusting to new/shifting family roles as children/parents age
·       Feeling the need to reinvent themselves given role changes
·       Lamenting their own signs of aging and thinking more about mortality
·       Feeling overwhelmed and exhausted from career and caregiver roles
·      Wanting to focus on themselves
·      Having little time for themselves
·      Financial pressures
·      Anxiety and depression

In Their Words

“My dad has Alzheimer’s, mom has heart trouble, mother in law has emphysema…as the oldest children in both families we are the “go to” ones as well. I have an incredibly stressful job on top of it all…I try and get my sibs involved and delegate responsibilities. We made med books for them and keep them up to date. We involve the neighbors as well. I also have three kids, grandkids…and their problems to deal with.”

Young Adult Children Struggle Through Quarter-life Transition

“When young adults emerge at graduation from almost two decades of schooling, during which each step to take is clearly marked, they encounter an overwhelming number of choices regarding their careers, finances, homes, and social networks. Confronted by an often shattering whirlwind of new responsibilities, new liberties, and new options, they feel helpless, panicked, indecisive, and apprehensive.”  – Alexandria Robbins, investigative journalist and author

Prior to my research for this blog, I had never heard the terms “quarter-life crisis” or “quarter-life transition.” Alexandra Robbins, a best-selling author and journalist, is credited with this term, and has written a great book entitled “Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties.” The quote above captures the unique transitional challenges that young adult children experience at the same time that their parents and grandparents  are working through their own transitions. Some common needs and challenges for young adult children include:

·       Feeling indecisive and uncertain about college/ career path
·       Wanting autonomy yet lacking confidence
·       Lamenting financial dependence on parents
·       Struggling to find a job due to a poor economy
·       Feeling overwhelmed with new/increased responsibilities
·       Dealing with the highest prevalence of anxiety and depression
·       Struggling to form new relationships

In Their Words

“I’m a 26 y.o. male, living at home with my dad and younger brother…I have a bachelor’s degree in business administration, but unfortunately…my student loan bills, credit card bills and car expenses haven’t yet afforded me the ability to move out on my own yet.” -Mid-twenties… Looking for some advice

Aging Grandparents and Late-life Transition

“Half of older Americans report having someone they consider to be a caregiver in their lives – and close to one-third (28 percent) of seniors say they serve as a caregiver for someone else.” -The United States of Aging Survey National Findings

A recent national survey conducted by the National Council on Aging and AARP entitled “The United States of Aging Survey” provides great insight into the needs and values of the older adult (grandparent) segment of the family system. Some examples include:

·       A sense of direction
·       Independence
·       To be productive
·       Financial security
·       To remain in their homes
·       The ability to adjust to change
·       Live in the moment; enjoy life
·       Stay active with friends
·       Value time with family
·       Not be a burden

In Their Words

“My one daughter has all these responsibilities with her job and she has her children. I don’t feel that they should have to take care of us. They should see us more because we are getting older. But like I said, they have big houses to take care of. They have yards to keep clean and they’re workaholics.”  -J Fam Nurs. 2009 August

Reflection Can Lead to Reinvention

While reviewing the most recent
issue of Psychology Today, I came across a great article by Kathryn Betts Adams, PhD, MSW entitled “Mourning and Reinvention in Mid-Life”. I really like Dr. Adam’s concept that mourning and reflection needs to take place when we experience transition and life changes. We have to take the time to acknowledge and process the fact that we will miss past roles. We also need to process and embrace the uncertainty that lies ahead as a “rite of passage” that others have gone through. Even though this article was focused on mid-life transition, I feel that “mourning and reinvention” are relevant for quarter-life and late-life transitions as well.

Family Transition Action Plan

The following Action Plan can help the entire family to understand and work through difficult life transitions:


– Ask each family member to write down their goals, needs, and concerns.


– Use this blog and toolkit below to learn more about multigenerational family transition.


– Hold a family meeting and have each member of the family system share goals/needs/concerns.
– A family therapist can play an important role in helping families to work through transition. See Toolkit below for a Family Therapist Locator tool.
– Friends can also be a great source of support for you and your family.


– Ensure that all members of the family feel heard and respected.


– Develop a plan for reaching personal/family goals.
– Start small and set short-term realistic goals that can be achieved.
– Think about ways that the family can work together to achieve goals.


– Put your plan into action. Expect bumps in the road. If this occurs, just go back and adjust your plan.


– Set a date for a follow-up meeting and evaluate your progress. Celebrate even the smallest success, and use this as a fuel for ongoing planning and support.

Tags:  sandwich, generation, family, caregiving