Who are the sandwich generation?

As Australia’s population continues to age, many people are becoming ‘sandwiched’ between their elderly parents and growing children.

On the one hand, you have your loving partner and kids cozied up in the family home, and a job that keeps you busy. On the other hand, you have your retired parents who you love and want the best for, but who also need a bit more help than they used to.

Sound familiar? You aren’t alone. This is the daily balancing act facing the growing ‘sandwich generation’ – the estimated 1.5 million Australians in their 40s and 50s who are juggling the competing responsibilities of their own children, partner, work and retired parents. And with people living longer and having kids later, this number is likely to grow. An aging population means we can no longer assume our own kids will have flown the nest before our parents also need some looking after.

While we all want to do the best for the family and job we love, this sandwich isn’t without its stresses. We discuss some of the challenges faced while living in a multi-generational household and what you can do to better manage them. 

Dealing with stress

It can be easy to burn out mentally, physically and even financially when you have too many demands on your time and not enough resources to meet them. Medical bills, school fees and time travelling from one commitment to another can quickly pile up, leaving you feeling overwhelmed.

“Being under stress reduces your capacity to problem solve effectively as you develop a tendency to react, rather than to take time to plan and think through various solutions,” says clinical psychologist for Sydney’s Equilibrium Psychology, Gemma Cribb.

“As a result, you tend to make poorer decisions, which can result in anything from relationship breakdown and loss of work, to poor financial or medical decisions.”

As mentioned in Apia’s The Guide for Living Well, it’s important that you focus on your own needs and desires in order to provide the best support for your family. Remember to look after your wellbeing by getting proper rest and nutrition, exercising regularly, and taking time off when possible. You could also consider implementing stress-reducing techniques, such as meditation or Tai Chi.

Other coping mechanisms could include asking family members for help, or looking into any public services you might be able to access. Sort tasks into those which can be easily divvied out to loved ones, those which can be paid for, and those which the government cover. The Australian government’s My Aged Care website can help you explore additional care for your loved ones, while the Centrelink website has information about any family benefits you might be entitled to.  

“Don’t feel you need to be all things to all people. It might help if at least one area of responsibility is taken care of, at least in the short term,” says psychologist at Personal Enrichment Services, Dan Martin. Even simple actions like investing in a babysitter or the occasional respite from your partner can pay dividends, he adds.

Remembering to look after numero uno

Trying to manage so many moving parts – your parents, children and work expectations – means it’s easy to stop taking care of your own health and wellbeing. You might begin deprioritize exercise, relying on the convenience of unhealthy take-away foods, or simply forgetting to actually take time out for yourself.

To help you remember, create a list of the most urgent and important tasks in order of priority, suggests Gemma. Whether it’s a medical appointment, school meeting or an important catch-up with a client, make sure you write them down first thing in the morning, so you are prepared for the day ahead. Block out an hour each day or even every couple of days to do something for you, whether it’s reading a book, meditation, going for a walk, or just sitting quietly and watching TV.

“Make sure to look after yourself and routinely check in to see how you are really coping,” says Dan. “It’s important to establish some routines that focus on self-care. There should also be layers to that where you focus on your partner and then your family.”

Remember self-care is not something to feel bad about.

“Any guilt will fade over time and the people you are caring for will benefit from you taking time for yourself in the long run,” says Gemma.

Boundaries become blurred

Often family members, friends and colleagues simply don’t understand the level of stress you are under or why you are prioritising certain aspects of your life over others. This can lead to hurt feelings and a breakdown of relationships.

The solution is plain and simple communication. It can be awkward and unappealing, but opening up the lines of communications is vital to a successful multigenerational household.

“Have some honest discussions with your parents, partner and children about what to expect and set some boundaries,” says Dan.

Taking advantage of your seniority and level of experience in the workplace can also help. Speak openly and honestly with senior management about some of the challenges you are experiencing at home, and explore options for flexibility in your schedule at work. Remember, this could be a phase in your career where flexibility is worth more than other benefits to you.

While your sandwich years can be a stressful time for all involved, it’s also an enjoyable phase of life; you have the opportunity to truly bond with your children, and taking care of your parents is the greatest way you can say thanks for raising you and seeing you through your years.

By putting some simple strategies in place, you can make the most of this unique time with your loved ones.

Need more advice, tips and tricks to your sandwich years? Visit The Guide to Living Well Hub.

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