By Sarah Lewis
Stressed, exhausted, unhappy? Rushing around looking after everyone but yourself?
If this sounds familiar, you could be part of the ‘sandwich generation’ – a generation of people caring for both parents and children at the same time.
There are thought to be more than 1.3 million sandwich parents in the UK, with women aged 35-54 more likely to take on caring responsibilities 1.
Although many people are happy to help their loved ones, this invisible, unpaid work takes a huge toll on wellbeing – with disposable income, mental health and overall quality of life all taking a hit 2.
We speak to three parents to find out the impact sandwich caring has had on them.
From joy to grief
Jennie*, a 43-year-old trainee counsellor, spent the first year of her son’s life caring for her parents as well as her eldest child, then 4.
“When my son was a few months old, my father was diagnosed with a terminal illness. It was supposed to be the most joyful time, but it was extremely stressful and isolating.”
For Jennie this was the start of a gruelling period caring for her father as well as her young children.
“We decided to care for my father in his own home, which we wanted to do – but it was tough. He was unable to do a lot for himself and needed round-the-clock care. He started forgetting who we were. My mother needed a lot of support too and my son had also had a serious health scare.”
Jennie supported her parents by making the 45-minute bus trip there most days to help with household tasks, 5-month-old son in tow.
There was a lot of admin involved too. “I had to arrange at-home care on a weekly basis with the council and cancer charities – he needed help washing and taking care of himself – and I made sure my parents got the benefits they were entitled to. I did a lot of research at the start,” she says.
For Jennie, the toll was on her mental health. “It was such a horrible time. I felt sad and anxious and – because his illness was terminal – I was already grieving my father,” she says.
“I was resentful that my parents couldn’t enjoy this time with their grandchildren, resentful that I didn’t get to enjoy my maternity leave, resentful that my husband couldn’t provide much support. Resentment became my middle name.”
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There were consequences for her career as a digital analyst too. “I added six months onto the end of my maternity leave to support my family and found it very difficult when I eventually returned to work,” she explains.
“I couldn’t settle back into my role and realised I needed something more flexible. I ended up leaving to retrain. Luckily, we’re mortgage-free so I could do this. The whole experience made me re-evaluate what’s important.”
Jennie’s father has now passed away, but she’s still supporting her mother who is suffering from depression and becoming forgetful.
“I’d like my mother to move closer, but she doesn’t want the upheaval yet. I’m prepared to care for her more over the coming years.”
Jennie now volunteers for the mental health charity Mind’s ‘Mindful Mums’ scheme – supporting new mothers who feel isolated.
“I was able to find the practical support I needed from researching online and from charities like Independent Age. I had very little time for myself but, in hindsight, some kind of talking therapy would’ve really helped,” she says.
Another layer of the sandwich
Most of us look forward to retirement as a time when responsibilities lighten. But for Christine and Paul, both retired costume makers in their 60s, life is still extremely busy.
That’s because Christine and Paul are sandwich generation grandparents, spending three-days a week caring for their grandchildren, ages 4 and 6, as well as supporting Christine’s 91-year-old parents.
“We retired early so we could help look after our grandchildren when our daughter went back to work. It was a definite choice of ours. I’d always been a working mother, so relished the chance to spend time with grandchildren,” says Christine.
“It’s like our job”
It’s hard work. On a typical Tuesday, Christine and Paul’s day starts at 7.30am when they pick up their grandchildren and ends at 6.30pm when their daughter, Kate, returns from work.
During the day they’ll drop the children at school and pre-school; take Christine’s parents to a social event and drive them home; collect both children from their respective schools and then cook them dinner at either their house or Kate’s.
“It’s sometimes infuriating being on the clock. But you get used to it,” says Christine. “It’s like our job,” adds Paul.
The job is made more difficult because Christine’s mother, Mary, suffers from dementia.
“My parents decided to move nearer to us around five years ago. We’re very fortunate to have been able to buy them a flat nearby. My mum had a fall recently and we were able to be there in minutes.”
As well as helping take Christine’s parents to hospital appointments and with shopping, the couple organise care from social services and local charities.
Christine found advice from friends to be invaluable, “My friend had been through this with her husband and told me about all the support that was available from Age Concern and local groups.
“She didn’t use social services but I’ve found them very helpful. It’s easier to get help at short-notice if you’re already known to them.”
Also useful was a Lasting Power of Attorney – a legal document which means you can make decisions for dependants if they are unable to do so for themselves.
“We have a Lasting Power of Attorney for the money side of things, but not for health matters as there was a mistake when countersigning the document. It’s good to be prepared for when the time comes,” says Paul.
Sharing the load
Christine and Paul say they still have time for themselves and avoid becoming too tired because they share the load and make an effort to stay fit.
“We go to an exercise class together twice a week, and if one of us wants to do something the other is perfectly capable of looking after the grandchildren on their own,” says Christine.
It can make it difficult to travel, though. “Our other daughter lives in America and previously we’ve had to arrange for social services to call in on my parents while we’ve been away. My father wears a response button, which gives us some peace of mind when we travel,” says Christine.
The couple seem to manage it all extremely well. The secret to their success? Doing it together. As Christine explains, “I have a friend who found caring for her granddaughter very physically tiring, I think because she was doing it all alone. She was only able to do it for two years.
“We’ve been married for 47 years and have lived and worked together the entire time. We manage because there are two of us.”
How can the sandwich generation cope?
With people having children later in life, and our own parents living for longer, most of us can expect to become part of the sandwich generation at some point. But there are things you can do to prepare for this time.
Get the support you’re entitled to
Charities like Independent Age can be a good starting point for advice and Money Advice Service has a comprehensive list of benefits that people who need care are entitled to.
Social services can help arrange care for elderly or unwell parents, and if you’re struggling to cope emotionally, talk to your GP or a mental health charity like Mind.
Speak to your employer
Could you work flexibly or reduce your hours in the short-term? Most employers will have a carers or flexible working policy. Ask.
Get a Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA)
This legal document gives you the power to make decisions on someone’s behalf if they are no longer able to do so. There are two types: one for a health and welfare, and one for property and financial affairs.
Speak to your loved ones and a solicitor about drawing up an LPA before you need it.
If you have an elderly parent or young children moving in, you’ll need to tell your home contents insurer. If you have to cancel a holiday because a dependant adult or child is seriously ill, your insurer should cover you.
If your family rely on you financially, it’s also worth thinking about critical illness cover. It could make a huge difference if you become unwell.
Be savings savvy
Sandwich carers feel the strain financially, with 28% saying their responsibilities have negatively affected their disposable income 2. But you should prioritise your own savings and pension if you are able to.
Alistair says, “Sacrificing our savings today may ease an immediate strain, but it will likely result in greater financial strain tomorrow.”
42% of sandwich parents help care for grandchildren, perhaps to spare their relatives expensive fees 2.
Don’t forget that when children turn 3, parents are entitled to 30 hours of free childcare. If you’re feeling the strain, encourage your family to use their free hours at a nursery or pre-school.
*Some names have been changed.