Being Squeezed in the Sandwich Generation

by Gwen Moran

Meet the Zebrowskis: a fast-paced household that includes a mom, a dad, five kids—and a grandmother. The Zebrowskis are part of the Sandwich Generation: Those family-oriented caregivers who are caring for children and aging parents. As medicine progresses and people live longer, there are an estimated 22 million family caregivers actively caring for an aging family member.

For the better part of the past five years, Helen Zebrowski and her husband, Bill, have cared for first her father, and then his mother. It is, according to Helen, a matter of course that they would take family members into their homes.

"There are times when it's difficult," Zebrowski concedes. "You have to make sure the meds are done, that there's special food in the house, the dressings are done. But if there's love in the family, it manages."

Merlene and Jim Sherman, founders of Golden Valley, MN-based Pathway Books (, have published a number of volumes on caregiving and the Sandwich Generation. The Shermans cite a statistic that the average person will spend 17 years taking care of a child and 18 years taking care of a parent. This trend, they say, is likely to continue.

"People are living longer now and medications are allowing that," says Merlene. "At the same time, this trend is producing more chronic situations which people didn't used to have. In other words, conditions from which people might have died are now treated. But sometimes, they turn into disabling conditions. Then the individual turns to the family."

In addition to drastically changing family life, caring for an aging or disabled relative can often provide new challenges to one's career. Ms. Zebrowski wakes up early to find time for herself; she works with her husband and some relatives to provide round-the-clock care while she's at work. The Shermans say that communication is one of the keys to balancing caregiving and career.

A recent report from the National Alliance for Caregiving and Metropolitan Life Insurance says that 52 percent of caregivers have some type of workplace problems as a result of their caregiving role.

"Some workplaces are not very generous in their allowing time in order to help others," says Merlene. "Many times, people will hide [their caregiving situation] from their employers. From the research we have done, the best strategy is to go to the employer and discuss your circumstances, as well as how it can be worked out so that your work doesn't suffer."

According to the Shermans, developments in technology, the prevalence of telecommuting, a tight labor market, and the willingness of more and more companies to provide work/life balance solutions have led to an increased likeliness that a compromise can be established. Jim asserts that the population of 50- to 60-year-old CEOs is becoming more receptive to the challenges of the Sandwich Generation dynamic, because many of them are experiencing the same issues in their own lives.

The Shermans travel around the country giving seminars to caregivers of aging parents, disabled family members, and others. According to the duo, being part of the Sandwich Generation is an experience that can be draining emotionally, physically, spiritually, and financially. They offer the following advice for caretakers:

  • Take care of yourself. Many caretakers, according to the Shermans, feel guilty about taking time out for themselves. However, it is critical that the caretaker make her own health and well-being a priority in order to take care of others.

  • Find out about resources in your area. Don't try to do it all yourself. Most communities have ample resources for assisting Sandwich Generation families. From respite care to meal programs, get in touch with area nonprofit and government agencies and see what services are available to your family.

  • Remember that this is difficult for your parents, as well. It's important to put yourself in the position of the person for whom you are caring. This person is experiencing a loss of independence and, perhaps, emotional issues involved with being a caretaker.

  • Try to work with other family members. It's important to involve those family members in other households. They can be important in providing relief in caretaking activities—and keeping them involved can help avoid resentment and misunderstanding among family members.

  • Don't think you're parenting your parent. Regardless of the caretaker situation, your parent is still your parent. Acting as if you are parenting rather than caretaking can cause damage to your relationship.

  • Keep lines of communication open. If you foresee a time when you will need to take time off from work, try to be as forthright with your employer as possible. Communicate with your family and friends about your needs. Don't let bad feelings simmer. Try to work them out before they become more serious.

Zebrowski adds her own advice. "Don't let your children be the caregivers. It's important that they not feel resentment toward their grandparents. My husband and I made this decision, so we feel that it's our responsibility to provide the care."

The Shermans add, "It's a very fine line that a person has to walk on. If you try to do it all yourself, you can damage your health. Find out about the resources that are out there, and take advantage of them. It's important for all of your family."

Additional Resources:
If you find yourself a member of the Sandwich Generation, following is a list of places you can turn to for support and help.

  • National Family Caregivers Association, 800-896-3650, has information on the special medical, financial, and legal concerns of the Sandwich Generation.

  • Your state or county office on aging. Each state has an office on aging. This is a hub of services and areas of assistance.

  • Your employer. The larger the employer, the more likely it is that the company will have resources to assist you with caring for aging parents.

    Also see:
    Back to the family channel
    Finding work and family balance

    Gwen Moran owns a marketing agency and writes frequently about marketing and business issues.