Carer support for the ‘sandwich generation’
Updated October 2022 | 4 min read
Expert contributor Lisa Steele, clinical psychologist
Words by Mariella Attard
When you’re taking care of elderly parents and children or grandchildren at the same time, it's important to remember there's carer support available and balance is important.
Every day for weeks Alejandra Rojas travelled to be with her mother, who was hospitalised after a fall. She was her mother’s carer and health advocate: alerting staff to relevant aspects of her chronic illness, helping to make decisions, and keeping track of interventions and instructions.
“Then I got a phone call from my stepson saying, ‘I’ve just cut my finger, what should I do?’ And I just dissolved. I felt like, I can’t be everywhere. I felt really stretched,” Alejandra recalls.
And she's not alone. About 5% of Aussies are part of the ‘sandwich generation’, a group whose carer responsibilities include looking after parents and children at the same time. According to research, this number is expected to grow.
Trying to do it all is taking its toll on those in the middle of the carer sandwich, who research shows can be worse off when it comes to physical and mental health, wellbeing and life satisfaction. And typically, it’s women who are more likely than men to be in those caring in roles.
Are you at risk of burnout?
Clinical psychologist Lisa Steele says things like having trouble sleeping, ruminating on worries and drinking more alcohol could be signs you need more downtime. You might also be uncharacteristically irritable and feel ‘compassion fatigue’ – a state of exhaustion felt when you’re overloaded by care stress.
Alejandra can relate. “I’d be really drained at the end of the day, but teenagers still need a lot of time and they’re really emotional, so I had to be patient.”
Asking for help and setting boundaries
“Sometimes busy people tend to take things on quite willingly, because they want to and they care, and it makes them feel good when they help,” Lisa says.
“Learn the art of saying: ‘Look, I’d like to, but unfortunately I can’t’. Or, ‘On this occasion I’m going to have to decline’.”
Think about what sort of carer support you need. Whether it’s using occasional daycare for kids, organising a roster so older parents have regular visitors, or applying for in-home services to help with shopping or housework, she says it’s important to share the load.
When it comes to tough decisions, like those about residential care, it shouldn’t fall on one person’s shoulders. “Have a family conversation about it if you have siblings or other people [close to the situation] so it feels like a shared responsibility, and include the older person in those discussions.”
You might feel guilty because you’re not doing enough, or you’re not meeting social and cultural expectations, but Lisa says you need to do what works best for your circumstances.
“What’s right for your family is going to be unique. There’s no right or wrong.”
Why self-care is important
Putting time aside for yourself can feel impossible when it’s in short supply, but it’s non-negotiable if you’re in this situation for the long haul.
Exercise is one of Lisa’s top recommendations because it can lift your mood and release stress. Another is getting outside to connect with nature, even in small doses. “And catch up with people where you don’t have to be in that caring role,” she adds. “A coffee in the park, even a telephone call – have that sense of being held yourself.”
Seeing a counsellor or a psychologist can be a good way to debrief, process worries and learn skills to manage emotions.
“Even if it’s once a fortnight for an hour, you’re clearing a space where you can talk in a safe and private time for you.”
Alejandra has come to appreciate the necessity of self-care. “They’re [children and parents] both going to need me for a while,” she says. “If I’m not taking care of myself, it’s going to be difficult. I’ve got to lean more on my partner and stay healthy – eat well, go to bed earlier, do a few walks.”
Sometimes you need to put yourself first for the benefit of everyone, Alejandra laughs. “You have to say, I want to watch this trashy movie now – leave me alone.”
Support for you and your family
We’ve been putting the health of our members first for 90 years – that’s uncommon.
We want to give you and your family the support you need at all stages of your health. That's why we've developed mental wellbeing support, chronic disease prevention and family and children support programs to give you the choice when you need it most. Learn more about our Health and Wellbeing programs.
HOW TO CARE FOR OUR PARENTS AS THEY AGE
Supporting your elderly parents once they reach a certain stage of life can be a big adjustment. This advice will help you navigate the changes together.
HOW YOUR PHONE CAN HELP MANAGE YOUR FAMILY’S HEALTH
Many Aussies are trying to keep on top of not only their own health, but also their family’s. Here’s how technology can help lighten the load of family health management.
MANAGING THE MENTAL LOAD OF FAMILY LIFE
Feeling stressed and overwhelmed by family life? Here’s how to set boundaries – and still keep things running efficiently.
8 WAYS HCF IS LOOKING OUT FOR YOUR FAMILY
Whatever the shape or size of your family, we have you covered for all stages of life. Here are eight ways we give you Uncommon Care.