The Sandwich Generation

February 19, 2014


For the third week of Psychology Month, Donna McLennon looks at the “Sandwich Generation”. 

Are you a member of the “Sandwich Generation”?  This is the group of more than 2 million Canadians, according to Statistics Canada, that are sandwiched or squeezed between caring for their young children and aging parents at the same time. The phrase was coined by Carol Abaya, who subsequently enlarged the menu, so to speak, to include the “Traditional” “Club” “and “Open Faced varieties.

The “traditional” group is comprised of those individuals who, at midlife, find themselves with the responsibility of caring for young children and their aging parents at the same time.  The “Club” variety consists of individuals in their 50’s or 60’s sandwiched between aging parents, and adult children and grandchildren or, those in their 30’s and 40’s, with young children, aging parents and grandparents. The ‘’Opened Face” applies to anyone else involved in elder care.

Multi-generational, multi-responsibility caregiving is not a new phenomenon, but for a number of reasons, it has been gaining more interest and attention. Statistics Canada tells us that one third of Canadians between the ages of 45 and 65 care for an aging parent (or parents) while they continue to have younger children at home. At the other end of the spectrum we find that due in part to economic factors, older children are staying or returning home to reside with their parents.  These are the boomerang kids and just when you‘ve come to terms with them being out on their own, boom they’re back!

As baby boomers age the demand for multi-generational caregiving is expected to grow.  The increased need for caregiving is also impacted by the fact that people are living longer and adults are having children later in life.  Because the reliance on caregiving is expected to grow, Desjardins Financial is just one of many groups calling on Canadian Companies to find ways to accommodate the anticipated growing numbers of caregivers through more flexible work practices and policies. Not surprisingly, the pressures of caregiving have far-reaching implications including difficulty reconciling caregiving responsibilities with employment related obligations.

A great deal of the literature on multi-generational caregiving focuses on the toll it can take on care provider. The majority of caregivers are women although more and more men are having to take on this role. The costs associated with multi-generational caregiving are largely due to the high potential for caregivers to become overworked, overextended, and overstressed. Most caregivers today hold down full or part-time jobs. Other stressors include added financial concerns as well as marriage and family conflicts. Some years ago I gave a talk to a group of professionals on the topic of the sandwich generation, many of whom were in the role of multi-generational caregiving. While they all acknowledged the financial and relationships stressors, they also identified struggles with guilt as a major source of stress.

Juggling the responsibilities of parenting, holding down a job and caring for aging parents is an extremely taxing endeavour and no one person can be all things to all people all the time. The multitude of demands creates fertile ground for guilt.  It is often the case however that caregivers needlessly “talk” themselves into guilt trips believing they must be perfect all the time. They should always please others, should always be right, should never make mistakes, and should always be available to help. The truth about guilt is that it keeps us looking for ways to remedy the past instead of letting us accept it and make decisions and plans based on what is best now.  If guilt is an issue to the extent that it is affecting your well-being and peace of mind, it is time to examine your thoughts and recognize that your guilt is a problem. Don’t lose heart because the good news is that guilt can actually serve a useful purpose: it is a sign that you need to make some changes.

Typically, due to the demands on their time, and feelings of guilt, caregivers neglect their own needs thus jeopardizing their physical and mental health. So in general terms, how do you go about avoiding compromising your own wellbeing while caring for your loved ones?  Chances are if you are in a caregiver role, your ability to identify problems and find solutions (for everyone else) is second nature to you. The key to your own wellbeing is to make a ‘healthier sandwich’ by applying a similar level of attention to your own needs. In other words, make time to care for the caregiver. Here are some tips for coping and preparing for the caregiver role:


  1. Don’t neglect other key relationships. It is easy to get so caught up in the caregiving role that you neglect other important relationships such as your spouse, your extended family and friends. You need those relationships to stay well so manage the guilt that prevents you from doing so.
  2. Seek assistance. Reach out for extended family support and access community resources.

There is nothing wrong with admitting you can’t do it all or that you need help. Reaching out does not make you weak or uncaring. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have your priorities straight. Rather, it means you are smart and responsible. Check out community and government aid programs. The Federal government provides caregivers with help (visit You also may be able to claim the caregiver credit on your tax return.

  1. Set boundaries. Be clear about frequency and duration of visits with your aging parents.  Sit down with your kids and map out the week’s activities including time for yourself for fun and relaxation. Block out time on the calendar for exercise, sleep, socialization and an occasional change in scenery.
  2. Don’t baby the kids. Treat grown children like adults. If adult kids are moving back home have them contribute to expenses or help out in other ways.
  3. Initiate discussions about health care directives, living wills and testamentary wills early on in the process.
  4. If you not already there, start talking now about the potential of being a part of a sandwich generation and how you would prepare for and handle it.

As a final note, it is important to acknowledge that in the face of all the challenges and frustrations associated with caregiving there are often many benefits. Improved relationships and increased feeling of self-worth as a result of being able to help a loved one are just a few.  Current literature on the habits of those who are happiest in life suggest that activities that lead us to feel uncertainty, discomfort, and even a dash of guilt are associated with some of the most memorable and enjoyable experiences of our lives!

Donna McLennon is a Clinical Psychologist in Corner Brook, NL.

photo credit: Robb North via photopin cc