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Five Tips for Sandwiched Caregivers

Ways to find balance in a life with competing demands

spinner image Amy Goyer - The Caregivers Sandwich Generation
Taking care of multiple loved ones at once can bring joy and fulfillment — as long as you take care of yourself too.
Getty Images/Maskot

The "sandwich generation" is traditionally defined as those who have a living parent and are either raising a child under age 18 or supporting an adult child. But I'd like to broaden that definition for caregivers, all of whom are sandwiched between multiple responsibilities.

We care for many layers of our family and friends (parents, children, grandchildren, grandparents, siblings, spouses, partners, neighbors, pets) while working, managing finances and households and caring for ourselves. Our lives would more accurately be described as a gigantic club sandwich — or perhaps a pressed sandwich, flattened by the pressure.

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I do not have children, but I am sandwiched between a very consuming job, a long-distance relationship, managing care for my dad, who has Alzheimer's disease and lives with me (as well as my dad's sick dog), handling our finances and keeping up two properties. If that's not sandwiched, I don't know what is.

My sister Linda is a more traditional sandwich generation caregiver: She has two young-adult sons and recently moved to Arizona to help care for my father. We are both stretched so thin, it's difficult for us to squeeze in time for self-care.

But there are a few things I've learned to do so I'm not crushed under all the layers of my sandwiched life. Some suggestions:

1. Protect your own identity. I'm referring to the essence of what makes us who we are. My work is an important part of my identity, and I've kept that going, although I've had to change where and how I work. Music is also a big part of me, but I don't have time to sing in a choir, so I sing with my dad constantly. What is the unique combination of interests and skills that makes you "you"? Find ways to incorporate them in your life, even when caregiving.

2. Reprioritize. We may set daily, weekly and big-picture priorities, but with so many demands on our time, we have to be able to reprioritize as circumstances constantly change.

3. Get organized. There are only so many hours in the day and only so much of ourselves to spread around. You don't have the luxury of wasting a single minute. Not naturally organized? That's OK, you can learn. Consult a professional organizer for help.

4. Accept help. No matter how superhuman we are, no one can deal with all these layers of responsibilities alone. Get help with caregiving as well as with your own tasks — things like work, cleaning, shopping.

5. Keep filling your own tank. I can't stress this enough. Every responsibility requires emotional and mental energy. Consider a variety of ways to refill your energy tank so you can keep going.

What have you learned as a sandwiched caregiver? Help other caregivers by posting your tips in the comments section below.