The Club Sandwich Generation: Caregiving at 70

You've heard of the Sandwich Generation -- those who tend to be between 40 and 50 years old who are sandwiched between aging parents who need help and their own children. We, on the other hand, are the Club Sandwich Generation -- in our 50s, 60s, and 70s, sandwiched between our own aging parents, our adult children, and our grandchildren. Many of us have sick spouses or ailing siblings who need our care. Caregiving is often the responsibility of senior women, and it is not out-of-the-question for us to be caring simultaneously for four generations!

When the conversation turned to caregiving in our 70Candles groups, Club Sandwich Women had much to say. They found the strength to take on the role of caretaker for spouse, sibling, and other close relatives, sometimes for years. They knew the strain of illness and the grief of death, and they shared their sadness and their pain. Unspoken were the thoughts of one's own demise...who would take care of the caregivers, and how would our lives end?

We know women our age who help raise grandchildren while two-career parents are away all day, even a family with several young foster children. Other grandmas are there to cover the after-school to dinner period of time. As longevity has increased, many of us still have our elderly parents in our lives. As they age we become their caregivers, even as we continue to emotionally support and nurture our children and grandchildren.

Most of our own parents did not face a similar experience with our grandparents. We hear how some women shift all their attention to the care of elderly parents. Some cease working and take on the task single-handed. One woman, a longtime professional with prestigious credentials retired early and moved alone across the country to live with her ill mother. Virtually all of our participants talked of life-as-usual put on hold when this duty calls. This can be a joy, or an emotionally taxing responsibility, or a combination of both, especially if there is slow deterioration of mind and body in the more elderly in our care.

Some women in our groups were nursing ill husbands, not infrequently while also taking care of a parent, or a grown child, or a grandchild, any of whom might need their care. Although some members of this club sandwich generation find their caregiving role to be heartwarming and a source of pride, we heard from other women who sounded quite discouraged and a few rather desperate. Most challenging and most common seemed to be when our relationships with our own spouses moved by necessity from mate and partner to patient and caregiver:

"Now my time is spent caring for my husband who has changed so much that I don't know him. We have three children and eight adult grandchildren, but the caretaking is up to me. Sorry to be so negative but this is how I feel."

"My husband, who is a bit older, has developed Alzheimer's."

"The struggle is that I want to stay active and away from the home... but I can't leave my husband."

"My husband did everything. Now that he's sick, I have to learn to get around on my own. I have to do everything."

If finances allow, it is important for caregivers to accept assistance. In-home care from private nursing agencies, day-care settings, and ultimately, in-home hospice care are available to relieve the burden. If budgets are tight, other family members, or willing friends should be called on to lend a hand. For the sake of their own health and well-being, caregivers need time for themselves, opportunities to rest and re-charge.

We are learning from these experiences, and don't want to be a burden to our own children. Knowing what a full-time job it might be to care for us in old age, we women in our seventies are purchasing long-term care insurance, downsizing homes so our children won't have to deal with our detritus, learning about in-home care options, and surveying independent and assisted living facilities so we can choose what might best suit our needs and our tastes when the need arises.

Do you have caregiving responsibilities? Are you worried about your own care as you age? Please share your stories, and know that you are not alone.

Adapted from 70Candles! Women Thriving in Their 8th Decade, by Jane Giddan and Ellen Cole. Coming soon.