Caring Currents

When It Takes a Village to Care for a "Sandwich Generation" Family

Last updated: Feb 27, 2009

rural village, Zimbabwe
Image by used under the creative commons attribution license.

This afternoon I was pulled out of an important management meeting by a phone call from my daughter's school informing me that the relative I'd delegated to pick her up had not arrived. She was in her counselor's office in tears, worried that she'd been forgotten, upset at having to miss an afterschool activity she loves.

There was nothing I could do -- I was an hour away and of no use to her. Yet, with my concentration interrupted and my thoughts divided between work and family, I began to think about the toll caregiving -- whether for our children, our parents, or in many cases, both -- takes on our ability to take care of our other responsibilities. And the stress that arises when we can't do it all because there simply isn't enough of us to go around.

Then, on the drive home, a call came from my sister reminding me of some details I'd forgotten to take care of regarding my mother's taxes, which I'm responsible for preparing. And my train of thought continued. How do we do it all, do it as well as we can, and not beat ourselves up when things don't go as planned because we can't be in three places at once?

About six-weeks ago, I wrote about how some companies are beginning to be aware of the connection between employees' mental health -- and productivity -- and their caregiving responsibilities and offering the service of "back-up care" for children and elders. That's a great start, and a wonderful support for those lucky enough to work for employers that can offer such perks. But for the rest of us, we have to create our own back-up care systems. And set up fall-back plans for when those back-up systems fail, for fail they will.

A few years ago, it was trendy to say "it takes a village" when it comes to raising a child. Well, for those of us smack in the middle of the sandwich generation, it does take a village to make it all happen. And if we don't have a village, it ends up being up to us to create one. Here are a few things I've learned about building a strong back-up team:

  • Find Someone You Trust to Be Your "Second In Command." Most of us don't find it easy to ask for favors; we feel we should be able to do it all, and hesitate to reach out. But ask any truly sandwiched caregiver, and they'll tell you their secret weapon is having one person they can truly count on. For me, it's a dear friend who's backed me up in so many situations that she truly feels like the "First Mate" of my ship. And after many years of mutual support, I'm confident that I fulfill the same role for her, so I don't feel awkward calling on her.
  • Know who's reliable. When you ask someone to cover for you, you'll feel much more relaxed and confident if you feel securely covered. Friends who can't remember what day it is, for example, are not the best ones to ask to pick your parent up from a doctor's appointment. Punctuality-challenged friends can help out with less time-sensitive tasks, such as picking something up from the store for you.
  • Use your calendar to note schedule conflicts. We all know the drill: The day your 9-year-old has a key basketball game will invevitably be the same day your father gets his test results from the oncologist. I've learned the hard way how important it is to get everything into my electronic calendar, so it can alert me to these "double-booked" moments.
  • Plan ahead for what you need. When possible, keep a list in your head of upcoming schedule conflicts and days when there's just no way one person can do it all. This way, when you're chatting with a friend about how stressed and overwhelmed you are and she says, "How can I help?" You're prepared to respond in a practical way. If you can't think of something at the moment, it's also fine to say, "Gosh thanks, nothing comes to mind but can I call you when something comes up?" You'll feel better making the call having gotten permission ahead of time.
  • It pays to pay it forward. This au currant expression refers to the idea of doing favors for others, even when un-asked, with the idea of "banking" good energy so it's there to draw on when we're the ones who need it. Offer rides home to your child's friends, bring a home-cooked meal to a sick neighbor, help friends out when opportunities arise, and you won't feel so awkward asking for favors when it's your turn.

If you have other strategies that have worked to build your "village," let us know.