The Sandwich Generation: Balancing Your Kids and Parents

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Does a typical day for you include work, shepherding children to activities, overseeing homework, and taking your parents to the doctor? You're part of the so-called sandwich generation, "sandwiched" as you are between the responsibilities of kids and elderly relatives. And if you're a baby boomer, you're smack in the heart of this wave of stressed-out middle-agers.

"There's a tendency for women in particular to think they have to do everything themselves," says Carol Abaya, a nationally recognized expert on the sandwich generation, who says that it's not uncommon to see women doing all the shopping, cooking, and cleaning for an elderly parent in the wake of an injury or illness. "Instead, do a little as possible. Empower your parents to remain as independent as possible. Otherwise you're stripping them of their dignity."

But what if your parents really do need help with even the most basic tasks? Here are Abaya's recommendations for keeping your own emotional, physical, and financial health in top shape:

  • Don't quit your job. You'll only set yourself up to be less secure in your own retirement. Instead, Abaya says, bring in resources. Hire someone to provide care in the home. Pay a neighborhood kid to do basic chores, or bring in your own children if they're old enough to handle it. "Teens can take out the trash and cook," Abaya says. "And the grandparents and kid are bondings." Don't know where to find paid help? Talk to hospital discharge planners, community service centers, your local office on aging, geriatric doctors, and even houses of worship. All should be able to steer you to agencies or people who provide home health care.
  • Assign tasks. Don't wait for help to fall in your lap—ask. Be direct about your needs. "Say, 'OK, Susie, I need you to take Mom to the doctor on Tuesday.' Make a schedule and let your sibling know which days they're "on duty." Divide cooking chores among friends and neighbors. Telling people what you need, not asking if they could possibly help, gives people less wiggle room to beg off.
  • Get your legal documents in place. You need financial and legal power of attorney over your parents. And this isn't a bad time to make sure you and your spouse have power of attorney over each other. Update your own will and appoint legal guardians for your children if they're young enough to need them.
  • Prioritize your own needs. You still have to eat, sleep, exercise, and earn a living. "If you don't take care of yourself and you get sick, there's no one around to take care of either your kids or your parents," Abaya says. "No one is superwoman." And don't forget to find time for your own fun.

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Carol Abaya, a national expert on issues related to the sandwich generation.