Sandwich Generation: Don’t Forget About Your Mental Health

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Let’s face it, while the holiday season brings joy and opportunity to spend extra time with friends and family, it also comes with a lot of stress. The main reasons: hectic and busy schedules, financial pressure, gift-giving worries, the dysfunction of being around certain family members and the inability to be with loved ones.

While I could focus this month’s “The Courage of Connection” post around the fact that the holidays make 66% of people feel lonelier, I wanted to write about a topic that is happening in my own life, and in many of the lives of those around me that isn’t talked about enough: the stress the holidays put on the “sandwich generation.” The sandwich generation is the group of adults with parents aged 65 or older that are either raising a young child or still financially supporting a grown child. These adults have to provide care for their own children and also, in some way, for their aging parents. This care comes in the form of general caregiving responsibilities that one would expect, like providing meals, rides, or basic health care, but also major stressors like financial and emotional support for their loved ones. This group of people is growing rapidly, with more than half of Americans in their 40s “sandwiched” between an aging parent and their own children.

Having to be a caregiver in any capacity is incredibly hard work. Throwing the holidays into the mix can quickly take the joy out of what is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. We are often so busy caring for others during this time that our own mental health and self care plummets. But that doesn’t always have to be the case.

In order to help my fellow sandwich generation-ers make the most of the holiday season and protect our own well-being, I wanted to provide some advice on how to take care of yourself this holiday season:

  1. Understanding your stressors: Before the holidays go into full swing, make a list of what stresses you out most about caring for your children and caring for your parents. The mental load of caring for two different groups of people can be very overwhelming, so it can be helpful to identify the hardest parts about the job for you. Is it shopping for presents for everyone? Doctors appointments before the New Year? Driving everyone around to their holiday activities and events? Worrying about what topics will be brought up at the dinner table? If you can make a list about what stresses you out the most and keeps you up at night, you’ll be able to communicate to those around you what could be taken off of your plate, what can be avoided, or work with a therapist on how to better manage these stressors when they arise.
  2. Communicating to stakeholders: With the above list in mind, how can you communicate to key stakeholders (your children, your parents, your siblings or other family members) to set their expectations, establish boundaries and set yourself up for success? Maybe it’s telling your family you are only going to attend one family dinner on Christmas Day and not drive around to everyone else’s house. Or maybe it’s that you just don’t have it in you to buy presents for every extended member of your family. Try to let everyone know early on what your expectations are, when you are available to help, and when you need to focus on other responsibilities. Communicate the “no’s” to people early on, so they can make other plans and not expect things from you that you are unable to provide.
  3. Making time for self care: Finding time to yourself during the holidays can seem impossible as a caregiver, but just a few minutes here or there will make a difference. If you are feeling overwhelmed with all of your relatives in your house, step outside and try to take a few deep breaths and look at the nature around you. Make yourself a cup of tea, go into a room, lock the door and just take a few moments for yourself. Or even get in your car, turn on some music and drive around looking at holiday lights in your neighborhood. Just spending a few minutes on yourself, especially during times of stress, will make a bigger difference than you think on your mental state and your ability to keep handling everything that is on your plate.
  4. Identifying and using emotional support: Here is where the “Courage of Connection” really comes into play. It can feel very isolating sometimes being a caregiver, and it’s also incredibly time intensive, so you may not even realize that you haven’t spent any quality time with people in your life outside of the ones you care for. Try to open up to friends and family about what you are dealing with and how you are feeling. There’s a good chance they have no idea what you’ve been going through and will offer their support and maybe even their help for some of the things on your “stressors” list. You can also find local caregiver support groups in your area through your town’s community center or through your child or parent’s medical office. Just having someone who can listen to you or understand what you are going through can be very comforting and empowering.
  5. Coping with grief and loss: As a member of the sandwich generation, it is likely that you have recently lost a parent and are dealing with the grief and loss associated with that. Or, you may be dealing with an elderly parent who has Alzheimer’s or dementia, and are experiencing the physical presence of them with you at the holidays, but the strain of not having them there mentally to engage in any of your annual activities together. Give yourself grace during this time to work through your emotions. Doing your best is going to look different every day. It can really help to share a fond memory or share what you are going through with a close friend, family member, or even a therapist. Just getting some feelings off your chest will lighten the load, and may even help you look back on the special years you shared with your loved one.
  6. Seeking professional help: We often hear “it takes a village” to raise a child. Caregiving for both children and parents is never easy, so I encourage you to consider talking to a professional about how you are feeling. A licensed therapist or psychiatric provider can offer you more help than a friend or family member, especially if you need an objective place to share your stress or anxiety. You won’t be able to care for others well if you aren’t taking care of yourself, so regular or even occasional check-ins with a professional can help ensure you are staying well.

The holidays may be more stressful for those of us who are caring for both a parent and a child, but they still can be enjoyable and memorable. The most important thing to remember is that you are not alone. I challenge you to open up to family, friends or even a therapist this holiday season to share your journey and seek advice. Your family members are incredibly lucky to have you as a caregiver, and to continue doing a good job, you need to prioritize your own mental health and connect with others.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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