Health Agenda


Carer support for the ‘sandwich generation’

When you’re taking care of elderly parents and children or grandchildren at the same time, remember to add yourself to the list.

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 is not alone. About 5% of Australians are part of the ‘sandwich generation’, a group whose carer responsibilities include looking after parents and children at the same time. According to research, their 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.

“It’s the planning, the worrying, the organising,” Prof Evans says. “People often say looking after an older person is just like having a child again, but it’s not. They’re two completely different roles.”

Typically, women 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.

You may want to join a support group or build your own support network. You may also look for information about financial support for carers from Carers Australia.

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.”

Self-care is not selfish

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.” 

Words by Mariella Attard
This article first appeared in the November 2020 edition of Health Agenda magazine.

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