Superwomen Of The Sandwich Generation — Can We Do It All? Should We Do It All? When Should We Ask For Help?

Many of today’s non-paid senior caregivers are Boomers and Generation X’ers – the 40 – 60 year old crowd.  We are the generation raised to believe, men and women alike, that we can do it all.  To us, “all” means having great careers, loving relationships, families, large houses, long vacations, etc.

Many of us waited to have children later in life so we could pursue careers and become established.  Now at 40, 50 or 60, we squeeze thirty plus hours of work, errands, childcare, home care, relationships and more into a twenty-four hour day.  We volunteer at school, serve our community and so on and so on.  Just when we think we’ve got it all under control, one more thing gets added to our already overfull plates – taking care of aging parents or other relatives.  All of a sudden the definition of “doing it all” just got bigger.

Sometimes I think that if you look up “sandwich generation” in the dictionary there will be  picture of me.  I have a daughter in elementary school and my dad is about to turn eighty.  What this means is that my so called “free time” – the time that I am not devoting to my mediation practice and the countless other tasks listed above – is split between driving to Girl Scout events and driving to Kaiser.  And those well-deserved vacations?  We don’t go to Hawaii or Europe.  We go to the mid-west to help my aging mother-in-law.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  It may sound like I am complaining about my life.  I am not.  I truly feel blessed for having such a wonderful kid and fairly healthy parents and a supportive husband.  I guess that I just wish that there were more hours in every day, or two of me.

So here we are, living the lives of superwoman or superman.  We are trying to do and have it all, and more.  What about when “all” gets to be too much?  When we get tired, or, God forbid, sick?  Do we ask for help?  All too often we don’t.  We’re either embarrassed to admit we’re stretched too thin or we don’t know where to turn.   Maybe we don’t know how to communicate our needs and fears to those closest to us.  Some of us think that we are not supposed to ask for help or that the conversations are too hard to have.  What does “help” even mean when it comes to our responsibilities towards the seniors in our life?

You don’t have to be superwoman/man! It is hard to do everything and it’s okay to ask for help.  There really are limits to what one person can do.  Asking for help doesn’t mean you’re weak or a failure or that you’re letting anyone down – it means you’re human.  According to Leading Age California, a family caregiver in California spends on average nineteen hours per week providing some form of care.  That’s equivalent to a part-time job that you likely didn’t plan for, probably didn’t ask for and may not have the time for.

There are a myriad of support services available – from hands-on caregiving, to driving, to meal preparation, to adult day care, to temporary or permanent living communities — depending on what you need.  Many family caregivers and seniors alike have no idea what types of services are needed, much less what services are out there.  Many families struggle to keep the senior at home, but don’t know how to make reasonable accommodations or are unprepared for the level of care that is actually needed.  Often an assessment by a geriatric care manager can help evaluate the situation, identify your family’s needs and guide you as to what type of assistance you need.  “I always tell families that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness” says geriatric care manager Victor Alcala, MSW, MSG.  “Family members are experts at being family members. Most of the time, they have never been in the position they are in now as family caregivers. Bringing in someone who has been on that path before can help to make the situation less stressful for both the caregiver and the older adult.”

Some interesting statistical information about caregivers and links to other resources can be found on the Family Caregiver Alliance website.  If the person for whom you are providing care has a brain impairment or suffers from multiple health issues, you may also want to look into the  Los Angeles Caregiver Resource Center.

Here’s another place you may start asking for help – ask the senior to whom you are giving care!  Okay, I know this sounds too simple, but think about it.  Many seniors have mobility issues, but are completely mentally fit and, as retirees, have nothing but time on their hands.  Are there phone calls you need made?  Internet searches you keep putting off?  Maybe you are overlooking a source of help in your daily life and, as a bonus, giving purpose in life to a senior who feels helpless.

When you really just need to talk with others who understand what you are going through or need help finding “help,” there are many support groups out there for family caregivers.  Try a Google search for “caregiver support groups Los Angeles” and you will find a group or organization that fits your situation and needs.  For example, are you or is someone you know reaching the boiling point trying to make plans for a parent who has severe memory issues?  There is a caregiver support group for family and friends of those with memory impairment, led by Gerontologist Carol Selinger, which meets at the Terraces at Park Marino in Pasadena.  Such groups are also offered by the Los Angeles Caregiver Resource Center and through other organizations throughout Southern California.

Finally, is family communication the problem?  Are you avoiding asking for help because the family just can’t make a decision or doesn’t know how to talk about it? Whether an actual dispute has arisen or is just looming in the background, consider enlisting an elder care mediator.  An elder care mediation session can help a family communicate in a non-threatening and purposeful way, so that you can make decisions everyone can feel good about and implement as a cohesive family. 

The bottom line is that trying to be a superwoman/man, and being everything to everyone, isn’t really going to help anyone – not your family, the senior in your life, or you, the family caregiver.  You’re going to get burned out and cranky and end up finding that you can’t do much of anything for anyone.  Get help.  It’s okay.

Cynthia Saffir