Patient Care

Juggling Care for Kids and Parents: Tips for Surviving in the Sandwich Generation

Aug. 12, 2021

Sandy Sabatka spent many years juggling the daily routine of raising a family, working full time and supporting aging parents. As her parents’ health declined, she took on the added role of primary caregiver and thus found herself a member of the so-called Sandwich Generation.

Her personal experience combined with her role as a social worker at Wilmot Cancer Institute, led her to form a caregiver support group to help others.

Sabatka had plenty on her plate raising two sons, Michael and Marek, with her husband, Philip. However, her parents’ failing health required a lot of her time. Her mother, Kitty, battled metastatic breast cancer and pancreatic cancer, and her father, Steve, had chronic heart disease and dementia. They needed a lot of care and coordination and eventually moved in with Sabatka.

Family Portrait
Shortly before her mother passed away, Sabatka's family took this group portrait. 

She got used to wearing many hats: She was wife, and mom to a son in college and another at home, working long days and juggling a calendar full of appointments for her parents’ care. Everyone had to pitch in, and there were plenty of days that were just plain difficult, she recalls.

“I think you always feel like you’re short-changing somebody,” she said. “Even with caregivers who aren’t sandwiched, your own self-care falls into the background. One of the reasons I started the caregiver group is because I realize how hard it is.”

After that experience, Sabatka offers tips for managing caregiver stress:

Tap into your support system.
Caregivers need support and social workers provide connections to resources that can help them begin to have difficult conversations with their children or grandchildren.

Support groups can be a real benefit for caregivers. While this may feel like another chore when you’re in the midst of an already busy routine, “There’s value in attending to your mental health in the moment.”

Let people pitch in.
“People who care about you want to help but they don’t know how.” They can take care of your shopping, pick up kids from school or practice, visit with your loved one while you go to an event, appointment or support group, or coordinate delivery of healthy meals (like MealTrain) or other routine tasks.

Find ways to keep family and friends updated.
Let someone handle phone calls or use a CaringBridge page to update family and friends. “When my mom was in hospice, a good friend of mine made calls to out-of-town family, which they appreciated. It was a lifesaver for me.”

Your health matters.
You need to be healthy to care for others. Are you eating and sleeping? Feeling irritable or relying on alcohol or other substances more than usual? Do not neglect taking your own medication or seeing your own health providers. Being an effective caregiver starts with taking care of yourself.

Normalcy is important.
“My mom didn’t want to sit around and talk about cancer,” she said. So to help take her mind off her sickness, they enjoyed going to get mani-pedis or dessert with friends. She enjoyed hearing about their lives and families. “We tried to do things that took her mind off her situation. We’d laugh and enjoy the time we had together.”

Many hands make light work.
Sabatka’s sons had to adjust to their new family life, whether it was added chores around the house, visiting their grandparents in a nursing home or hospice, or getting used to the flow of people coming in and out of their home to provide care. “Communication was so important. There were a lot of emotional times but even though it was hard, it showed the kids an example of how we take care of each other as a family.”

Forgive yourself for missing things.
While sad to miss many of her son’s college swim meets and musical performances, Sabatka was grateful that some concerts were live-streamed allowing her to watch from home.

“Being away while a loved one is ill is not easy. Fortunately, he had support from his teammates and when my mom died, he came home and many of them stayed at our house.” An added benefit was that he played the viola and the others sang at the funeral. “It was really wonderful.”

Prepare for unexpected emotions.
It’s OK to be worried, angry, helpless or sad about your loved one and situation. If it becomes overwhelming, seek help. “Those are all appropriate and normal for a caregiver to experience, which is why it’s beneficial to have someone to talk to. If it’s not in a group, it could be a therapist or social worker at the cancer center. Recognize that those feelings are normal but it’s how we respond to them that matters.”

Let family traditions change and enjoy them.
Sabatka’s family learned the importance of flexibility. For example, at Christmas, they celebrated with her mother at the hospital and watched home movies. “Your loved one may not feel up to the usual traditions, it’s important to talk about what is meaningful for you both and it’s OK that you don’t do things the way you always did them.”