“You take your mom and dad, I will handle the kids.”
This is a common phrase in many marriages these days. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the average life expectancy for a man in the USA is 76, while it’s 81 for U.S. women. Because of this uptick in longevity, many people find themselves delivering care for parents while still raising their children, teens or college-age children, creating the nickname of “the sandwich generation.”
The Sandwich Squeeze
We have been at this stage, a “sandwich couple,” for nearly a decade. On one side are Bill’s folks, who are now almost 88, and one is frail of mind while the other is frail of body. This means we were helping our parents while parenting our kids as they progressed from mid-teens to young adults – who married and introduced grandchildren (who also need our attention) into the mix!
We consider ourselves fortunate that our own children were in their teens and early 20s when caring for their grandparents became an issue. Our children have learned to be a part of the caregiving support system for their grandparents, even if it simply means phoning regularly from their college dorm, helping with grocery deliveries or much-anticipated meals out with Grandma and Grandpa when in town.
Many of our friends have launched into this “sandwich” stage of life when their own children were much younger, which is even more difficult. Some were balancing these plates of responsibility even when their own children were toddlers. One day, I called a friend to see how she was surviving the press from both sides of the sandwich, and her reply was, “Somedays it doesn’t feel like I ever get a break; I go from changing my toddler’s diaper to changing my mom’s Depends!”
The sandwich squeeze can prove very strenuous and challenging for a marriage, too. So how can a couple not just survive, but thrive, if they find themselves in the center of sandwich living? We’ve come up with three tips that have helped us stay in love while giving care and support to our parents, our kids and now our grandchildren as well.
1. Actively Adjust
Often, the time spent providing care for parents slowly increases without an honest dialogue of exactly what life changes might need to take place in order to stay in love, and balance the rest of life! Many couples just keep piling on one responsibility after another and, in many cases, his or her spouse might be piling on unspoken hurts and resentments. The time a husband or wife spends caregiving can be seen as time not spent with a mate on vacations, not handling issues at home, or actively helping parent his/her own children.
To remove the bricks of growing resentments, a couple can create a weekly marriage meeting where they talk through and pray through priorities and plans. We created a simple worksheet couples can use to navigate this weekly chat. Talking about how and when adjustments need to be made will keep you unified and pulling in the same direction together.
2. Grant Grace
Even if you talk through and set a proactive plan in place, the unexpected will arise. In our case, Bill’s father has had repeated health crises, and the timing of these are very unpredictable: in the middle of a family vacation overseas; the week of our youngest son’s wedding; and most recently, as we were trying to remodel and sell our home, downsize and move to be nearer Bill’s folks to devote more time to their care.
When the unforeseen happens, we each acknowledge the difficulty of the situation, then immediately grant grace. For example, I might say, “I am so sorry you have to deal with this. I am sorry this trauma is interrupting our plan. I know you can’t control any of this – and that’s okay. Let me pick up this piece (name what you can carry so your mate can go help his/her parent).”
Bill might extend grace by saying something like, “Honey, I hate to have interrupt what we have happening right now. I am sorry I need to zip out and manage this with my parents. I am sorry that the responsibility of our life here is landing on you once again to handle. Thanks for understanding. Thanks for carrying that extra load with the kids so I can go minister to my parents. I so appreciate you.”
3. Extend A Helping Hand
Pitch in with various caregiving supportive roles by doing things like grocery shopping, errands, cooking, cleaning, helping with finances or automotive and home care. If possible, give your mate a break from the relentless and constant pressures of caregiving by doing kind gestures, like arranging a respite caregiver so you two can go on a romantic weekend away. An alternative could be sending your spouse to a day spa or golf course while you handle some of the caregiving.
Are you in the sandwich generation? How have you and your spouse kept your marriage strong while dealing with the pressure of caregiving on both sides?
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