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Stuck in the Middle with You

The new rules of the "sandwich generation" can mean making decisions for your aging parents and meeting new demands on your time.

A Place for Mom or Dad continued...

For most modern families, moving mom or dad into your house should be a last resort, says Abaya -- and even then, only if there's space for them to have some private area of their own. But according to Susan Ito, a writer in the San Francisco Bay Area whose “Life in the Sandwich” column in the online magazine Literary Mama chronicles life with her 84-year-old mother, husband and two daughters, “sandwich” living can have its pluses. For example, her mother’s need for a schedule has had a calming influence on the whole family, Ito says.

“As a family, it’s actually been really good. We used to be chaotic about who ate when, but she needs the routine of regular meals, so we have nice family dinners,” Ito says. “There’s much more of a feeling of what it means to be a family.”

Family Triage

Bursack calls the constant juggling act of caring for spouse, parents, kids and job “family triage.” “You figure out who needs the most care, when and how, and take it off in chunks," she says. "It can be very hard: trying to be really productive at a job when you have hospice on one line and a customer on the other.”

What most caregivers forget to do, she says, is put themselves in the equation. “You have to drop the guilt and realize that you are as important as the people you’re taking care of. Be mindful when you take on another job for yourself. Don’t shove your own needs under the rug. Delegate, delegate, delegate!”

Friesner recommends that every family caregiver squeeze out a small amount of time for her or himself every day, no matter what. “Whether it’s a bath every night where no one disturbs you, a walk in the morning where you don’t take your cell phone, or even 20 minutes at night on an online support board, you need time for you.”

Find daily activities that can keep seniors busy. Ito’s mother, who is in the early stages of dementia, attends a quilting class, a bowling league, and volunteers at her granddaughter’s school. “There’s a routine, a schedule that she can rely on,” Ito says.

Just as you organize your work, organize the process of caring for your elderly parent. “We may find ourselves bogged down taking our parents to the doctor. As they develop more and more conditions and go to more and more doctors, you’re taking off work every other day,” says Friesner. “Instead, make Wednesday ‘doctor day’: you’ll take off work that day only, and maybe you’ll have time for lunch with your parent as well. Make sure it’s not all responsibility and no relationship.”

The juggling act can be easier if you learn specific skills. “If your parent has Alzheimer’s, go to the Alzheimer’s Association. If your parent has arthritis, go to an arthritis association,” says Bradley Bursack. “These organizations have done so much research, they can teach you the skills you need. It’s not always intuitive -- love and dedication are important, but they may not be enough.” She catalogs a host of resources on her web site at MindingOurElders.com.

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