A recent Pew Research report showed the Sandwich Generation -- those 24 million Americans squeezed between caring for children and aging parents simultaneously -- may be getting younger. Previous studies and research have identified a typical Sandwich Generation member as a baby boomer -- however Pew found while 33 percent of this segment of caregivers are boomers, a growing 42 percent are Gen X. Across the nation, 47 percent of Americans who are age 40-59 are now Sandwich Generation members.
The challenges of what I call "The Sandwich Generation Juggling Act" -- balancing children, career and caregiving -- often means dropping the ball that says "me." Adding caregiving to the list of life's responsibilities can take a toll on a caregiver's health and wellness to the point of accelerating aging. In the book, So Stressed, the authors cited a research study conducted by the University of California at San Francisco where caregiving moms of special needs children who experienced high levels of stress actually harmed their DNA. This chronic stress gave these caregivers the health and outward appearance of someone 9-17 years older than their biological age. While Sandwich Generation caregivers may be getting younger, their health neglect may mean they are closer in "caregiving age" to their older parent.
Real Age Calculator
To find out if caregiving is causing you to age more rapidly, there is an online calculator developed by America's favorite doctors, Dr. Mehmet Oz and Dr. Michael Roizen, authors of You - The Owner's Manual books. It is called the Real Age Test and it takes about 15 minutes to complete the online questionnaire. After calculating answers to cholesterol levels, blood pressure readings, eating habits, fitness routine, sleep patterns and more, the result is your new estimated "real age." The report also offers tips on how to improve your age score (meaning scoring younger than your biological age) in the various areas.
8 Childish Things Caregivers Can Do To Improve Health and Wellness
When it comes to taking better care of our bodies, our minds and our souls, sometimes we have to revert back to our childhoods. Playing outside, being silly and laughing with friends and acting carefree may actually benefit caregiver health. Following are my 8 tips for caregivers on how to tap into their inner child:
1. Naptime: Health experts recommend getting 7-8 hours of sleep per night. Research shows sleep deprivation or experiencing numerous awakenings during the night can increase risk for diabetes and obesity because lack of sleep impacts insulin levels and slows metabolism. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says 20 percent of Americans get fewer than 6 hours of sleep a night and 38 percent of caregivers reported insomnia as a side effect of caregiving. Columbia University in New York analyzed research data on sleep deprivation and obesity and found getting five hours or less sleep per night results in obesity levels 50 percent higher than those getting nine hours a night. Try to plan naps and bedtime as if you were nine-years-old again.
2. Bath time: Remember enjoying nightly baths as a child? Baths are a luxurious dream for which most caregivers typically don't have time. Yet baths are not a luxury -- they may be a necessary way to boost your health score. Use Epsom salts or fragrant oil such as lavender in a bath to help reduce stress, improve circulation and aid relaxation. A study done in Japan showed stress relief from baths can fight colds through vascular and lymph system stimulation which encourages bacteria-destroying properties in the immune system. Take 10 minutes for a bath at least three times a week and don't forget the rubber ducky.
3. Outdoor Fun and Sun: 10 minutes of sunshine a day is enough to boost natural levels of Vitamin D (promoting calcium absorption needed for strong bones) which has been proven to aid prevention of health risks such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, cancer, allergies and osteoporosis. In addition, sunshine boosts mental health -- brain functionality and optimism all improve with increased levels of Vitamin D. One study in the Journal of Finance found that stocks traded on sunny days were more profitable than those traded on cloudy days!
4. Hop, Skip, Jump: Dr. Andrew Weil wrote in Spontaneous Happiness that we are a society suffering from nature deficit disorder. The feel-good oxytocin effect of reveling in a beautiful sunset, watching the ripples in a lake, staring at beautiful vistas rather than at a harsh computer screen or listening to birds tweet instead of the noise pollution of your Twitter feed is what we need. According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, 91 percent of caregivers in health decline report depression and a Caring.com survey found 1 in 4 caregivers suffer from depression -- twice the national average reported by the CDC. Dr. Weil reports key factors leading to depression are: lack of physical exercise, reduced human contact, overconsumption of processed food and an endless desire for technology distractions. Take a cue from childhood: play hopscotch on the sidewalk, take the dog or a friend for a walk, skip to the mailbox, jump rope in the backyard -- all these activities cost nothing and help you relive the wonder of being outdoors.
5. Daydream: Remember lying on your back and looking up into the clouds deciding which shapes you could find? A lion, a car, or even hearts? Find a patch of ground - whether it is the backyard or the neighborhood park, take a few minutes each week to just lie on your back and watch the clouds scroll by (or create a "virtual cloud gazing" by lying on a bed or couch - no TV, no music, no external disturbances allowed - and watch the iClouds app on your smartphone or tablet). It is a variation of meditation that ensures caregivers have the mental stamina to keep going.
6. Laugh: Charlie Chaplin, who lived to the ripe old age of 88, said, "A day without laughter is a day wasted." Being a caregiver is nothing to laugh about -- it can take physical, emotional and financial tolls. But finding the funny bone in caregiving can get you through the day. Children laugh on average 400 times a day and adults only get 15 giggles daily. Dr. Lee Berk, acclaimed psychoimmunologist at Loma Linda University Medical Centre, calls laughter therapy, once seen as a fringe movement, now part of complementary medicine or lifestyle medicine. One study showed laughing is a mini workout -- it burns calories, reduces stress, increases heart rates and sends more oxygen to the tissues. Another research study found 20 seconds of laughter is equivalent to three minutes on a rowing machine in terms of improving lung function.
7. Hold hands: Remember the first time you held hands with someone you liked? Hearts beat faster, oxytocin levels ("cuddling hormone") surge and the body is engulfed in a warm feeling of happiness. Hand-holding may be the prescription caregivers need. A University of Virginia study showed the wives who held the hands of their spouse or a friend reduced their stress levels. Reach out physically to a friend or family member to hold their hand or give them a hug or do it virtually through the help of the online community site that can create a volunteer community to get caregivers the break they deserve.
8. Take a Time Out: Remember getting a "time out" from mom or dad? In childhood, this typically meant punishment for misbehaving but for caregivers taking a time out is not punishment but nourishment for the soul. Finding five minutes or five hours a week to focus on yourself is what I call Me Time Monday, a program that uses the science of Monday to find "Me Time." What is "Me Time?" It is an activity that is all about you -- whatever brings a smile to your face, gives you guilty pleasure or makes you feel joy.
Caregiving is a huge responsibility but taking the time to embrace your inner child helps create a balance between caring for a loved one and caring for you.
This post is an excerpt from Sherri Snelling's book, A Cast of Caregivers - Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care.