Becoming the sandwich generation

Most of us who are lucky enough to have parents still alive will, at some point, become part of the sandwich generation. The sandwich generation are usually people in their 40s or 50s who still have dependent children at home and are starting to care for their own parents. Sometimes they even have grandchildren thrown into the equation too.

There was a meme out just before the first lockdown which I found far too funny. It summed up the situation perfectly. A woman was stood in between her daughter and her mum. Her daughter was saying ‘But Daisy’s mum lets her go to the park’ and her mother was saying ‘But Marjorie’s daughter lets her go to Asda’. But that woman had to say no to both of them, because she was responsible for them both.

It doesn’t feel like that long since my own parents were the sandwich generation. They spent the early part of the noughties caring for my grandparents, they had my sister still at university and I gave them a couple of grandchildren to care for too.

But now it’s my turn.

I’m lucky that my parents are still with us and have always been in good health. My mum is 72 now and my dad is 76. I had my first glimpse of life in the sandwich generation back in March last year, when I took on their shopping for a few months. It turns out that shopping for other people is far harder than shopping for yourself. I felt guilty when items were missing from the shelves, even though it wasn’t my fault there was no Andrex (or any toilet roll at all), no red peppers and none of the brand of coffee they like. I didn’t know what I could replace missing items with, or whether it was best not to buy them at all.

But as spring rolled into summer and the coronavirus cases fell, my parents were happy to start doing their own shopping again. Things got back to some sort of normal.

Then late last year, I was unexpectedly thrust back into my sandwich role, when my dad became seriously ill with Covid-19.

Suddenly it was down to us ‘kids’ to support our parents.

My parents are generally very independent and work as a team. But working as a team means, for example, that my mum does very little driving. Although she coped remarkably well on her own for five weeks, she did need some additional support. And while my dad was safe in hospital, he needed support too.

None of us could visit him, which made it extra hard for everyone. But we had to deliver things to him, like clothes and toiletries, and put credit on the phone which was eating it up like there was no tomorrow. We actually bought him that mobile phone and delivered it to him while he was in hospital, as his old one was about 15 years old.

My sister and I both delivered meals to my mum. My husband was in charge of the expensive mobile phone. My brother offered lots of emotional support and advice by phone. My sons and I even went round to my mum’s to remove spiders!

It was a tough time and I’m grateful that there are lots of us to share the load, with even my teenagers doing their bit. I think the hospital must have been fed up with us when my dad was at his most ill – they got calls from my mum, my brother, my sister and even my eldest. We all just wanted to do our very best for my dad.

The tough bit of it all was the worry, rather than the ‘burden’. It has actually felt like an honour to give something back to my parents, who have done a brilliant job of supporting the three of us and our kids for the last 47 years.

My parents had all the support they needed and so did us ‘kids’.

We were told it would take a year for my dad to make a full recovery, but he has defied the odds again. You literally wouldn’t know he’d been ill at all now. Having had their vaccines, my parents are back to doing their own shopping and life is as normal as it can be in lockdown for my family.

I’m aware that this my dad’s recovery isn’t the end of me being the sandwich generation. The reality is that I will spend the next few years of my life dipping in and out of sandwich responsibilities, until I reach a point where it becomes a daily role. It won’t be easy, but it will all be worth it to have my parents around for as long as possible. And I know that I’m not alone. I have the support of my siblings, my husband and my kids.

I can’t imagine how hard it would be without a brother, a sister and a husband to help. We had a difficult few weeks at the end of last year, and I don’t know how anyone copes as the only member of the sandwich generation in their family.

It makes me think of my friend (and I’m sure there are many like her) who is dealing with a mum in her 80s whose health has been declining for some time. My friend has no dad, no partner and no siblings to help her. Her daughter is younger than my kids, so she doesn’t even get the extra help I can call on from my teenagers.

For anyone who is supporting their parents alone, my heart goes out to you. If you know someone who is in that situation, take the time to give them a call and see how they are. During lockdown, it’s almost impossible to offer any practical support to our friends, but even a call and giving them time to talk could be a real help to the sandwich generation.

Family, Parents, Grandparents, Teenagers, Sandwich generation

Author: Sarah Mummy

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  1. I have never heard of the phrase sandwich generation before. The mention of the meme did make me chuckle. I remember that and thought the same. Telling my girls not to go to the park and my dad to just stay at home too. lol
    Earlier on in the year when I helped with my dad’s shopping I felt so bad when items were out of stock too. I have done more and more to help my dad out over the year especially when it came to doing things on the computer regarding his business. Usually he would go see the council or whoever in person but now everything is done through email which he isn’t great at.
    I am glad your dad has just about made a full recovery. Mine has too but I keep reminding him the virus is still out there even though he’s had it and been vaccinated x

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    • It is tough trying to do the right thing, isn’t it? I hated not being able to get my parents the things they wanted from the supermarket.
      It’s good to hear that your dad has recovered now and it’s great that you can help him with the computer. My son deals with my parents’ IT issues! X

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  2. Sarah,

    My induction to the sandwich generation began in 1999, when my mother started to show symptoms of dementia. A year or two later, I experienced a light-bulb moment when my father was telling me about some item of admin (I’ve totally forgotten what it was) that had cropped up, which he couldn’t deal with on his own. In effect he was saying to me, “I’ve got this problem, and what are you going to do about it?” I replied, “All right, Dad, I’ll sort this out next time I come and see you.” What I didn’t tell him was that I’d suddenly realised we had swapped rôles — I was now the parent, and he was the child.
    This brings me to an additional difficulty that lots of people in the sandwich generation (e.g. Helen Wills and myself) have to face: location. They live miles / tens of miles / hundreds of miles from their parents.

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    • That must have been tough dealing with your mum’s dementia. We’re not quite at the point where the tables have turned yet, although we all helped my mum quite a bit while my dad was in hospital. I’m pleased that she was willing to accept help and to ask for it when she needed it.
      Dealing with the distance must be so hard and a really common problem. I’m lucky that I live close to my parents and my siblings are nearby too. I remember my dad used to go to see his mum 70 miles away most weekends. His brothers lived close to her, but they all did different things to help her.

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  3. I only discovered this phrase recently and I am quite ‘lucky’ in the sense that my mum is still working and really independent. She is retiring at the end of next month and I think she will need me a lot more after that but as you say, it is a good thing as you get to spend time with them and hopefully it does mean that they will be around longer too. You have been an amazing support to your parents through this mad time, I hope that once Covid calms down that your parents will be able to gain some independence but they are very lucky to have you

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    • That’s amazing that your mum is still working!
      I’m glad I was around and able to give my parents all the support they needed while my dad was ill. Now they’ve had their vaccines they are back to doing their own shopping, which is great for them and for us. I’m hoping Covid doesn’t give us any more drama now and they can enjoy a few more years of independence.

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  4. I’m so glad to hear that your dad has made such a full recovery. It must be very difficult caring for your parents as well as your children. I have done a lot for my dad in particular for a long time but we haven’t yet reached a point where there’s any caring involved, more practical things like writing letters, emails and anything involving the computer. I’m in the odd situation that my dad has lots of children who will help but my mum only has me. Thankfully my mum is still very independent, long may it continue.

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    • Thanks very much, my dad has made a remarkable recovery! It is such a relief.
      Those few weeks he was in hospital were tough in so many ways – emotionally and practically. I’m hoping my parents can stay independent for a few more years now.
      It’s good that you can help your dad with the computer. Fingers crossed your mum stays independent for a few more years yet! X

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  5. I always said the same about not having a brother to help with our mum when she was ill. He was single and his working hours worked so he had more time in the day, so could move in when she really needed help, as I had a toddler. But I do feel for N being an only child – I’ll be whipping myself into a home/controlled living when I get too old, but the OH would never do that. Luckily N has plenty of cousins currently all living nearby so would have support for him. But it is definitely hard for only children, or those who live far from their parents.

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    • It must have been a real help to have your brother around when your mum was ill. It would be very difficult juggling caring for an ill parent with caring for a toddler. I haven’t even thought about what I will do when I’m old! I like to think I’ll be in this house forever, but I know that probably won’t be the case.
      Thank goodness for N’s cousins!

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  6. I remember caring for my mom with her final illness. You are so lucky to still have parents alive – never take it for granted.

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    • That must have been so hard. I am very lucky to still have both of my parents. I definitely don’t take it for granted, but even less since my dad had Covid. I’m so grateful that he is still with us.

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