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The Sandwich Generation Feels the Squeeze

Caring for children and elderly parents at the same time is stressful, but there are ways to lighten the load.

There are more than 12 million people in the U.S. providing assistance with daily living to an older family member while also caring for a child or grandchild at home, according to the Centers for Disease Control. On average, they provide elder care for 24.4 hours a week and spend nearly $7,000 per year out of their own pockets. 

Those people simultaneously providing care to parents and children are known as the "sandwich generation." In farming, this term also refers to those who are doing the bulk of the work on the farm while their parents still control the business and their children want to join the team. 

In both cases, being caught in the middle is difficult, but when it comes to caregiving, the pressure goes beyond keeping the business afloat and extends to ensuring the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of the people who raised them and the people they're raising. 

As Baby Boomers age, the sandwich generation will only get larger. According to the U.S. Census, adults over the age of 65 made up just 10 percent of the rural population in 1980, but by 2016, that number had grown to nearly 18 percent. There are now more than 10 million rural Americans aged 65 or older.

In the midst of taking care of the previous and next generations, caregivers are also trying to make a living, maintain a healthy marriage in many cases, and take care of themselves. That last item is often overlooked, which means many caregivers experience increased psychological stress and declining physical health.

Planning is Everything

In a perfect world, decisions would be made and steps taken to keep elderly loved ones in their homes as long as possible before illness or injury strike. This way, they can share their wishes, outline a plan, and get their affairs in order. If you are an adult and your parents are still living, chances are good that you will need to care for them in some way or another in the future, so it's wise to be proactive and make a plan before it's needed. 

Retirement lifestyle planner Kurt Jackson says creating an estate directory goes beyond a will and farm succession plan and shares things like birth and marriage certificates, bank account information, insurance policies, passwords for online accounts, power of attorney paperwork, and funeral preferences. 

Having access to this information is crucial when someone dies, but it also helps eliminate a lot of stress for caregivers if their loved one is ever diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease or another type of dementia and is unable to remember where important papers are or clearly communicate their wishes.

If elderly parents are uncomfortable sharing this information, Jackson recommends adult children create a directory for themselves first and show their parents, then offer to work through the process with them.  

Another way adults of all ages can help prepare for their parents' or their own futures is to plan for aging in place. Remodeling contractor Rollie Clarkson is a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist, a designation by the National Association of Homebuilders. He recommends all clients designing a new home or remodeling an existing home take accessibility into account. Making a few adjustments in the bathroom, kitchen, and laundry room can go a long way toward allowing an aging parent or any adult dealing with an injury or disability to stay in their home longer.

Considering the average cost of assisted living in Iowa is $3,500 per month or $42,000 per year according to a Genworth Financial Cost of Living Survey, Clarkson says, "If you put $75,000 into your house and stay there another five or 10 years, that's quite a return on your investment."

Of course, it isn't always a perfect world, and it may be too late to put these plans into motion for your parents. If that's the case, Jackson and Clarkson recommend taking the time to make these plans for yourself, saving your children the stress and difficult decision-making you have had to face.

Find Ways to Lighten the Load

Caregivers often feel like they are doing everything for everyone else, and may struggle with managing their time in such a way that allows them to be there for their parents and spend time with their own families. Here are a few ways caregivers can carve out more time for their spouses, children, or themselves:

  • Ask for help: One of the first things caregivers should do when faced with caring for an elderly relative is to investigate what services are available. Talk to the county commission on aging. Sign them up for Meals on Wheels. See if transportation to a senior center is offered if the loved one enjoys social visits. Respite care may be available through county or state agencies, or you might consider adult day care. Talk with your loved one's hairdresser and see if in-home appointments are an option. Ask if the neighbor kid would be willing to take garbage to the road for pickup for a few dollars a week. 
  • Accept help: Caregivers often feel like they have to do everything themselves, even if they really don't. If a neighbor has offered to scoop snow from your loved one's sidewalk, let them. Thank them with a batch of cookies. If a teammate's parents volunteer to bring your child home after practice, let them, or work out a carpooling agreement to share the load. If a sibling offers to come clean once a month, let them do it, even if they don't do everything exactly like you would.
  • Harness technology: If an elderly relative lives on their own, using technology to help keep an eye on them can save worry and time. Even if they never plan on using the internet, it may be worth having service installed in their home. It's definitely less expensive than hiring in-home care or moving to assisted living. Installing a camera with two-way voice ability is handy and can let caregivers check in. Alexa or Google Home devices can be used with other smart devices to control lights, lock doors, play music, adjust the thermostat, and even see who's at the door. They can be controlled by the person in the home or remotely by the caregiver. Gadgets like those from Tile can be attached to often misplaced items like a purse or wallet and easily found with Alexa or a smartphone.
  • Use your phone: Apps like Evernote can be a Godsend to caregivers. This free app allows users to save and organize things like typed notes, photos, and PDFs, making them accessible from any of the user's electronic devices. Having immediate access to insurance cards, lists of medications, power of attorney paperwork, and other documents can eliminate drive time and stress. It's also useful for keeping track of things like receipts and logins to online accounts. Use this app for the kids as well. When they bring home sports schedules, snap a pic and save them in the app.  
  • Medicine management: Many pharmacies now offer pill bundling for little or no cost. They will package daily medications into individual packets marked with the name of the patient, contents, and the date and time they are to be taken. This saves caregivers time sorting pills and helps ensure correct doses are being taken. Some pharmacies will even ship the packets to the caregiver's or patient's home.
  • Shopping shortcuts: Getting groceries for elderly relatives is an unwelcome weekly task for many caregivers. More and more grocery stores, even those in small towns, are now offering online ordering. Their apps will often let users create lists for regularly purchased items, so the more times you shop, the easier it will be. A little additional planning is required, since orders must be placed several hours or even a day before pickup, but it's worth it to be able to just pull into the parking lot and have the groceries loaded into your vehicle. Most stores that offer this service don't charge for pickup with a minimum order, and will even deliver for a small fee.
  • Connect: Caregivers may feel alone at times, but the fact is there are thousands of other people dealing with the same issues. Seek out local support groups for those caring for elderly loved ones. Your Extension office is a good place to start. If dementia is part of the equation, check for a nearby chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. There are also dozens of Facebook groups geared toward caregivers, and many are closed groups to protect privacy. Join a few groups and see if one feels like a good fit. The ideal group will be closely moderated and have members who offer first-hand experiences and nonjudgmental advice and support. Several caregiving podcasts are also available and can offer helpful tips and resources.

Look for the Silver Lining

There's no question that caring for children and parents at the same time is stressful, but it has some real advantages as well. It's good for children to see their parents taking care of elderly relatives. It shows them that it's important to care for family and to give of yourself to others. Someday they will be in charge of your care, so let them see you caring for their grandparents how you'd want them to care for you. 

The relationship probably means the elderly relatives are seeing the caregiver's children more often, too, and there's little doubt this is the highlight of their day. Encourage children and grandparents to play cards or look through photo albums together while you do a load of laundry or tend to other things that need done. Better yet, take advantage of this time by pouring yourself a cup of coffee and just enjoying a little break.  

READ MORE: 20 Strategies That Farmers Can Use In 2020

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