The Sandwich Generation: Becoming a parent for your parents

Story and slideshow by NICHOLE BUTTERS

Meet Claire and some of her extended family.

For Claire, raising a family of 15 children in Murray, Utah, has taught her firsthand how to care for and support her children. Now a widow at 86, her children are repaying the favor.

They help her with her daily needs, but they also are the caregivers of their own families. They are members of the Sandwich Generation.

The Sandwich Generation is a term used to describe adults who are supporting a family and are the sole caregivers of their parents or in-laws. According to caregiver.com, “the caregivers find themselves squeezed in between providing for younger loved ones such as children and their older parents or other older family members.”

Some sources also believe that the Sandwich Generation feels pressured into caring for their parents. According to Investopedia, “The sandwich generation is named so because they are effectively ‘sandwiched’ between the obligation to care for their aging parents who may be ill, unable to perform various tasks or in need of financial support, and children who require financial, physical and emotional support.”

This trend is becoming more and more common across the country. In a January 2013 study by the Pew Research Center, “nearly half (47 percent) of adults in their 40s and 50s have a parent age 65 or older and are either raising or financially supporting a child. About one in seven middle-aged adults (15 percent) are providing financial support to both an aging parent and a child.” The percentage is expected to increase to as much as 60 percent in the next decade.

Louis, 43, is Claire’s youngest child (the family asked that their last name not be published). He knows firsthand what it means to provide for his own family as well as his aging mother.

Living only a few feet away from each other, Louis and Claire’s homes currently share the same acre-lot property. Claire’s home is where Louis grew up as a child.

“It makes it easy to check on her and to make sure she has everything she needs,” Louis said. “I’m grateful she is still around, that we still have her in our lives.”

While Louis isn’t working as a plumber, he is at home checking in with his mom every day to ensure her needs met. Because it is difficult for Claire to attend to household chores and yard work, Louis steps in. He regularly keeps the yard groomed, tends to the pets, checks the oil in the cars and takes care of any household maintenance work. He recently built a new laundry room in his mom’s home right next to the kitchen so she would have easier access to the washer and dryer.

“I appreciate all of my kids’ love and support,” Claire said. “It means the world to me when they visit and help as I get older, and I always enjoy their company. Sometimes you feel invincible like you can do everything, and then you realize that old age doesn’t always allow that.”

Being this close, however, can create some tension within the family. The Sandwich Generation takes care of finances, medication, meals and scheduling for both their older dependents as well as their own families, which can be a struggle for two families to juggle.

“It can be tough to have so much responsibility,” Louis said. “You get so used to your parents taking care of you, and you forget that they need you just as much when they get older. I work to support my wife and daughter every day, but also need to be there for my mom just as much.”

Louis soon realized that time management is key in this unique situation. “The real challenge is finding that balance,” he said. “Making sure that everyone in my household is healthy, happy and comfortable.”

While the balancing can be difficult for caregivers, “the challenges to elders are just as daunting,” according to the self-help site Sandwich Generation. “To lose control of one’s life, even the little things can be shocking and frustrating. … As more baby boomers become both sandwich generationers and seniors, the need to understand aging dynamics and family relationships increases dramatically.”

Claire said, “No matter what age you are, you never want to be a burden to your family. It can be hard to accept their help, even when you truly need it. But allowing your family to serve you blesses them as well.”

For the millennial generation, it is easy to see those blessings. Claire’s grandkids have the opportunity to spend more time with their grandma and learn from her experiences. Kristy, 23, is one of Claire’s 37 grandchildren. “Now that I’m married and have a baby, I realize how lucky I am to not only have the support of my grandma, but also be able to see her so often,” she said. “She was there at my wedding, and all of us know that if we ever need her, she’s just a phone call away.”

Kristy said that Claire, her daughters, grandkids and great grandkids regularly get together at Mimi’s, Village Inn and Marie Calendars throughout the week to talk and catch up.

Kristy will most likely become a “sandwich generationer” at some point in her lifetime. Peter Hebertson, information and referral program manager with Salt Lake County Aging and Adult Services, said, “Most women in the US will be caring for her parents or in-laws at some point in her life, and may also be raising children at the same time.”

According to caregiver.com, “the typical American Sandwich Generation Caregiver is in her mid-forties, married, employed and cares for her family and an elderly parent, usually her mother.” Delle, one of Claire’s nine daughters, falls into this category.

Delle regularly drives her mom around to doctor’s appointments, grocery stores and other meetings throughout the week. Although Claire still has a valid driver’s license she gets nervous driving at night and feels safer when she gets a ride with her daughter. Nelson lives in Riverton, Utah, which is a 28-minute drive to her mom’s house in Murray, but the distance was never a problem for her. Delle realizes the important role she now plays in Claire’s health and happiness.

“You spend your life emulating your parents, and before you know it you realize they need you to be there for them,” Delle said. “She’s taught us so much throughout the years, and none of us want to see her lonely as she gets older. I want to be there for her, physically and emotionally.”

Despite the challenges that may come at her age, Claire is still active in her community. She contributes service to the Relief Society and enjoys spending time with members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Claire regularly attends aerobics at her local gym with others her age, and is able to cook meals for herself and any of her 78 grandchildren when they are able to visit throughout the year.

Claire’s large family is a personal success that she has always cherished. Because of the loss of two of her children, she treasures the time she has with her family.

“They mean the world to me,” Claire said. “Life isn’t always easy, but you have to get back on your feet every day and make the most of what you have. My family has filled the silence with laughter.”