The sandwich generation is here to stay. Are you feeling the carers crunch?

5 min | 25 April 2022

Janice Warman

As lifespans extend, many middle-aged people find that they are the jam in the generational sandwich, with teenagers and elderly parents becoming physically and emotionally needier at the same time. Just as middle-aged people begin to face ageing issues of their own, the needs of those around them are increasing.

The two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have sharpened many of the problems faced by these adult children. Both their parents and their own children have suddenly faced new challenges, between such things as medical dangers, homeschooling, and older children returning to live at home.

The concept of the sandwich generation is not new. According to the  Washington Post “When the term was first coined by social worker Dorothy Miller in 1981, she referred specifically to 30- or 40-something women — baby boomers or members of the Silent Generation — who were caregivers for both children and aging parents.”

What's happening and why?

The Office for National Statistics reported that with life expectancy increasing and women having their first child at an older age, around 3% of the UK general population, about 1.3 million people, now have this twin responsibility for sick, disabled or older relatives and children.

Sandwich carers are more likely to be struggling financially compared with the general population, says the ONS. One in three say they are ‘just about getting by’ financially, and one in ten are ‘finding it difficult’ or ‘very difficult’ to cope. Only 17% say they are ‘living comfortably’, compared with 32% of the general population.

Six out of ten sandwich carers who spend more than 20 hours providing adult care are out of paid work. They report a lack of leisure time, and 41% who look after a relative within their home say they are unable to work at all, or as much as they would like. Women carers, in general, are also more affected by this – 28% are not in the labour market, compared with just 10% of men. And more than one in four sandwich carers show symptoms of mental ill health.

Connections may provide support

Carers UK’s research found that trying to find the right care for an older relative was harder and more stressful than finding good quality childcare. ‘With the social care system under increasing pressure, additional stress is being placed on sandwich carers, with the situation often exacerbated because many may be living at a distance from their older relatives. Connecting carers to each other for peer support, and to external organisations such as Carers UK for information and advice about caring, can also provide both practical support and peace of mind,’ says Katherine Wilson, head of employers for Carers UK.

However, despite these difficulties, those who help usually do it willingly. Sarah has cared for her uncle John, who has Down’s syndrome, since his mother died. John suffers from vascular dementia, and Sarah’s own children are 13 and 16. Sarah works as a community support officer for her local social services, and juggles work and home life. John now has a carer to help get him up and dressed on the days Sarah works, but if the carer is ill, Sarah takes annual leave to stay with him.

‘I want John to stay home for as long as possible,’ she says. ‘I know from my own job that people with dementia can go downhill overnight when they have to deal with sudden change. I don’t want that for John. He’s my uncle and I love him to pieces.’

If you are a sandwich carer, there are ways to find help

First, it’s important to recognise that you are a carer. ‘Most people don’t call themselves carers, seeing caring for a parent or partner, sibling or close friend as part and parcel of life,’  Carers UK points out. ‘However, recognising that you are a carer could be a vital first step in getting the extra help you need.’

The organisation’s guide for unpaid carers of all ages, Looking After Someone (Opens in new window), summarises your basic rights and entitlements. They offer advice on getting the right information, dealing with feelings of guilt, being assertive with professionals, handling difficult conversations with relatives, and looking after your own wellbeing. You can also phone phone Carers UK helpline at 0808 808 7777.

You could get an assessment by the local authority social services department, that may result in help and support for both of you. You'll find help choosing carers at the Care Quality Commission (Opens in new window) or you can read how to choose a care home agency at Which? (Opens in new window). If the person you are looking after needs you to help look after their affairs, they can consider making a lasting power of attorney. Information is available from gov.uk (Opens in new window)

There is also help available for carers from some employers (Opens in new window) in the UK. ‘With one in seven of the UK workforce now combining paid work and care (and higher numbers reported since the COVID-19 pandemic) there is a vital role that employers can play in supporting colleagues with caring responsibilities, including sandwich carers, in their workplace,’ says Katherine Wilson.

It might be worth asking your employer if they offer any support like this.

Sources:

  • Washingtonpost.com 11 March 2020 'The ‘sandwich generation’ quandary was hard on baby boomers. It’s going to be harder on their kids.'
  • ONS.gov.uk Report 14 January 2019 'More than one in four sandwich carers report symptoms of mental ill-health'

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