if you have to combine care for (grand)children and parents

More and more people are combining their jobs with caring for the young and the elderly. The so-called sandwich generation likes to roll up its sleeves, but is therefore also more likely to struggle with stress and financial problems. ‘I haven’t been on holiday in years and I always have my mobile in my pocket.’

Paul Noteteirs

“I’m a caring type, I wouldn’t be able to stand it if my father lived in a nursing home,” says Katrien Burghgraeve (45) from Gentbrugge. Her daughter is almost of legal age, but it doesn’t look like her caregiving duties will ease any time soon. For years, she has visited her parents, who live across the street, every day.

At first she mainly helped her mother, but since his death a few years ago, her father has also struggled with health problems. Even before she goes to work in the morning, she visits him to get his clothes ready and make coffee. At night, her last task is to put him to bed.

These are tasks she carries out with love and she wouldn’t have it any other way, but the combination with her own household is tough. “I have already considered taking him in, but my house is too small for that. Besides, you have to give up even more of your life, and you no longer have any privacy.”

Burghgraeve’s situation may be recognizable to hundreds of thousands of Belgians. About 9 to 15 percent of the adult population belongs to the sandwich generation. This is a heterogeneous group, most of whose members are between 45 and 65 years old. In addition to their jobs, they take care of a younger and an older generation.

Growing group

The ‘sandwiches’ often focus on (grand)children and their own parents, but blood ties are not a requirement. The group is also growing, which is linked to the systematic increase in the retirement age.

“Many are still working today when they become grandparents, while this is often also the time when their own parents (parents-in-law) have a harder time,” says Miet Timmers from the Knowledge Center for Family Science at the Odisee University of Applied Sciences.

‘Sandwichers’ are often women between the ages of 45 and 65, although variation is possible. The generation of women who were the first to study en masse and work outside the home is now once again taking a pioneering position by experiencing on a large scale how difficult the combination of a job and a dual caregiving task is. This often leads to problems.

The Workability Monitor for 2019 shows that people over 55 find it increasingly difficult to keep busy with their work and family at the same time. Timmer’s hypothesis is that the ‘sandwich problem’ is largely to blame for this.

After all, several studies show that the challenges arise all over the world. In a recent University of Michigan study, 44 percent of “sandwiches” reported significant emotional distress, compared to 32 percent of peers who only cared for an older generation.

These issues often remain under the radar. After all, those who theoretically belong to the sandwich generation do not necessarily identify themselves that way. They often feel that their care tasks are part of their life phase, although the work context has certainly changed. When a period like the corona crisis came, and all those requiring care suddenly needed even more attention, the pain points were revealed even faster.

Burghgraeve confirms that it is not always easy to keep the various balls in the air. “I haven’t been on holiday in three years and I always have my mobile phone with me,” she says. Her father has an alarm button that he can press if he falls. In this way, he can inform his daughter at any time.

“You are constantly on duty as a ‘sandwicher’.” I am lucky that my family understands that I am not always at home. They know why I do it.”

Financial consequences

In the US survey, people from the sandwich generation also reported struggling with financial problems twice as often. Sometimes they slow down professionally to take on extra caregiving duties.

Burghgraeve did the same, although this again has financial consequences. “I now work 28 hours a week and receive an informal care premium of 130 euros a month. It is not compensation for the lost working time,” she says.

There is a good chance that the problems with ‘sandwichers’ will increase further in the future. People have children later and later. This also increases the chance that grandparents will be able to take on fewer caregiving tasks and need help themselves. Child wish coach Viki Peeters (50) notices in her practice that the subject worries many wishful parents.

Viki Peeters: “You realize more that life is limited.”Picture Tine Schoemaker

She herself gave birth to her sons when she was 36 and 43 years old, which means she also belongs to the sandwich generation. She never had to manage her parents’ household, but due to their advanced age, she felt it was important to have enough time for them.

“You realize more that life is limited,” says Peeters. So when her mother died in April at age 81, she was thankful she took the time to make enough memories together.

As the number of ‘sandwichers’ increases, Timmers hopes that members of the group will also find the strength to set their own boundaries more often. “The generation grew up with a great sense of duty. However, it must also be possible to talk about a better division of tasks.”

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