By Sherri Snelling
July is Sandwich Generation Month, celebrating the 24 million Americans who are literally sandwiched between caring for two generations. Representing approximately 38 percent of all caregivers, Sandwich Generation members are still parenting children living at home while they also care for older parents who now need more help.
Because Sandwich Generation caregivers tend to be in their 40s, 50s and even 60s, seven out of 10 are also juggling a career along with child rearing and caregiving. With so many balls in the air, the Sandwich Generation caregivers often feel overwhelmed, burned out and stressed to their limits. At some point, the ball that gets dropped is the one that says self-care.
According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, the typical Sandwich Generation caregiver :
* Is a 48-year-old woman
* Cares for her 74-year-old mother
* Has children under 18 at home
* Is married and works either full or part-time outside the home
* Spends up to 10 percent of the household annual income on care-related costs for her parent
* Suffers from stress and burn-out and, often, some guilt
* Doesn’t have enough time for herself, which leads to problems like insomnia, poor nutrition, little or no exercise, missed doctor or dental appointments and even depression
Unfortunately, when it comes to health, Sandwich Generation female caregivers have more risks. Our society has long held that women traditionally fill the caregiver role – in fact, 66 percent of all caregivers are women. While more and more men are becoming primary caregivers, most are backing up a wife who is the multi-tasking manic. Because half of the U.S. workforce is women, men are picking up the slack in caring for the kids or managing some of the household chores while a wife cares for her mom or dad. But the emotional and often physical toll of caregiving still falls to women and stress becomes their constant companion.
In their book “So Stressed,” Dr. Stephanie McClellan and Dr. Beth Hamilton found that the evolution of women’s biology over the last 100 years has not caught up with the expanded roles that women play in today’s world, including mother, career woman and caregiver. They also explain that the advances of communication technology, while helping us in some areas of life, have actually negatively impacted our bodies’ defenses to protect and heal because the constant disturbance of our peace with texts, emails or cell phone calls puts us on high alert at all times and actually isolates us rather than connects us.
One of the ways to de-stress is the Me Time Monday videos and tips created by Caregiving Club as part of the awareness and education effort for the Caregivers’ Monday campaign from The Healthy Monday non-profit organization.
A study from the Commonwealth Fund shows that family caregivers are twice as likely as the general population to develop multiple chronic illnesses earlier in life, partially linked to the prolonged stress that can be common when you are a caregiver. The Monday Campaigns public health initiative started in 2005 in association with Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. It is based on research by Johns Hopkins showing that Monday has special significance as the beginning of the week – a critical unit of time when planning our lives. The research indicates that more people are likely to start and stick to a new plan on Monday rather than any other day of the week – whether it’s beginning a new diet, ceasing to smoke, scheduling doctor appointments or starting a new exercise routine.
But there are online communities where caregivers can find volunteer help so they can get a break. In many ways when a crisis event happens, caregivers are surrounded with well-meaning family and friends who ask, “What can I do to help?” Most caregivers don’t have a list in hand to give to someone with exactly the kind of help they need. In addition, coordinating all these requests is beyond the scope of reason for any caregiver at that moment. But online sites including Lotsa Helping Hands, CaringBridge and CareZone, have been created to help caregivers easily list the tasks they need help with, on a website that can be accessed by friends, family—and, in many cases, volunteers.
“More than one million volunteers have joined Lotsa Helping Hands private communities to perform millions of tasks including: meal delivery for a care recipient or a caregiver’s family if they are busy with care-related duties; laundry; providing rides for seniors to the doctor or to get the kids to soccer if a caregiver has other responsibilities,” says Brooks Kenny, chief marketing officer for Lotsa Helping Hands. They also partner with more than 50 non-profit organizations, inclulding as the Alzheimer’s Association and the National Family Caregivers Association. Lotsa also recently launched their “Open” communities where local community residents can volunteer to help a caregiver and their family even if the volunteer does not personally know the family.
Caregivers I have talked to often say their caregiving is a “labor of love.” This July as we celebrate Sandwich Generation caregivers, let’s labor to give them some love back by lending a helping hand, a shoulder to cry on or a voice at the other end of the line that will just listen.
Sherri Snelling, CEO and founder of the Caregiving Club, is a nationally recognized expert on America’s 65 million family caregivers with special emphasis on how to help caregivers balance self- care while caring for a loved one. She is the former chairman of the National Alliance for Caregiving and is writing a book about celebrities who have been caregivers that will be published in late 2012 by Balboa Press, a division of Hay House.