Midlife challenges: being jam in the sandwich

slice of bread with strawberry jam in heart shape on wooden board

While persuading my two year old not to dismantle a mobility aid, the words ‘sandwich generation’ came to mind.

midlife challenges are like a jam sandwichWe were visiting my 83 year old stepfather. He had been rushed into hospital and kept for lengthy tests. Taking a toddler hospital visiting? An interesting choice but actually there wasn’t one. I needed to support my mum and stepdad some 120 miles away, negotiate time away from work and look after my son.

The situation continued for a number of months but I’m in no way alone. This small snapshot of life is faced by an increasing number of us.

American journalist Carol Abaya founded the Sandwich Generation®, a website providing materials for people sandwiched between aging parents and their own children.  She defines the term as, “traditional: those sandwiched between aging parents who need care and/or help and their own children”.

Or the more complicated “club sandwich: those in their 50s or 60s, sandwiched between aging parents, adult children and grandchildren. Or those in their 30s and 40s, with young children, aging parents and grandparents”.

It’s a time when we may need to move into a role of helping to ‘parent’, or to support the older generation while bringing up the next.  So how can we prioritise the needs of our loved ones and juggle distances, time and finances?  And is it selfish to hope to keep a little time for ourselves while we do so?

Understandably, my previously very able parents find it extremely frustrating to have to ask for help. They don’t want to be a bother. As you would expect the now three year old won’t ask for help, declaring “I can do it” with a variety of interesting and decorative results. I want to help both but haven’t managed the Hermione Grainger trick of being in two places at once.

The situation is not exclusive to those with young families. There has been a 20 per cent increase in 20 – 34 year olds living with their parents compared with 1997. As the UK’s population continues to age, our children reaching adulthood have fewer opportunities to leave home and need our support in other ways.

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With these trends set to continue, the chances are that more of us will start to feel like the jam in the sandwich. I asked friends who are already there for their thoughts on how best to navigate the challenges.

Thinking of your family at midlife:

  • Get help with the practicalities. Age UK and the Carers Trust can offer advice on support that may be available to your family.
  • Share the load wherever possible. If a sibling lives too far away to help in person, could they make phone calls to support services or help out financially?
  • Consider local support for your relatives if you are at a distance. Personal assistants are able to help with a variety tasks from personal care to taking your loved one shopping. Try your local authority websites.

Thinking about you at midlife:

  • Give yourself a time slot each day when you are allowed to worry about things. Otherwise try hard to give yourself a break and keep from going over the same issues in your mind.
  • Focus on how much you are doing, not on what isn’t getting done.
  • Keep a sense of your own self. See your friends and make time for something that makes you feel good. This will help you to replenish yourself and to build your resilience.
  • Are you a lark or an owl? Think about when you have the most energy and tackle the tough stuff then.

Above all don’t feel alone. I didn’t have to look far to find others in the same situation. People were happy to share their experiences and solutions. All agreed it is hard but it’s also ok, if not essential, to reach out to others. If you don’t know anyone, take a look at online forums such as those run by www.thesandwichgeneration.co.uk .

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The future may not be easy but as one friend put it “this time will pass and you will want to look back on things that make you smile”.  I agree and, although sadly on borrowed time, Grandad is now storyteller-in-chief. We talk, laugh and do more together. I’m still chasing my son and the walking frame is still fair game.

*Sandwich generation definitions reproduced with permission from Carol Abaya.

About Sue Mason

I am a communication consultant and freelance writer. My free time involves catching up with friends, walking on beaches and chasing after my small son.