The Sandwich Generation: All That and a Bag of Chips

October 2014


Photo by iStock

Who here hasn’t been deeply immersed in a deadline project when a family member calls to say something’s happened that requires your immediate attention?

Show of hands?

The truth is we’ve all gotten those calls, from entry-level employees to executives. And if you’re part of the so-called Sandwich Generation, they come more frequently. Thanks to delayed childrearing and parents living longer, many more of us are simultaneously raising funds for our kids’ schools and raising cane over our parents’ or grandparents’ declining health.

Maureen and I are no exception, although we are perhaps fortunate that our children are now (at least technically) grown and therefore (again, technically) no longer reliant on us for their survival. But we both have mothers with serious memory issues and family dynamics that force us to step up when it comes to our parents’ care.

That’s why we thought it might be a good time, with family-oriented holidays on the horizon, to mention some tips based on our own experiences.

1. Set boundaries. This is, of course, assuming your children are old enough and siblings and parents young enough to abide by your wishes to thoroughly weigh if something is an emergency. Explain what your work day is like and the consequences of being called away from it for too long. Is this worth you being reprimanded? Losing a client? Losing pay? Yes, there are family emergencies that most employers gladly accommodate, but if these calls are happening on a weekly basis, the real crisis is a failure to make a much needed change.

2. Communicate expectations. Do your children or your parents know the best times to call, email or text—and the worst? Do your brothers or sisters frequently interrupt your day because they don’t value your work? And, importantly, does the issue rise to the occasion of emergency—meaning immediate attention required—or is it just a more convenient time for them to talk? Sometimes you just need to state at the end of a talk, “Here’s what I’m going to do, and if after this, we can discuss it in the evening when I’m home, not while I’m at work and limited in what I can do or say.”

3. Evaluate the situation with more objectivity. Let’s face it, family (and close friends) get away with a lot more than most people because we are close to them and to their issues. If there are recurring calls with consistent messages (“Dad’s fallen again!” “Joe came home with another bloody nose!”), then it may be time to unload on a professional or someone removed from the situation. Listen carefully to what they have to say. And ask for brutal honesty. A good friend or therapist will provide it even if it hurts. They’ll also hold you accountable to taking steps to improve a situation.

4. Find another solution. If you and family members are constantly in crisis mode, it’s a clear sign a situation isn’t working. This can be difficult to acknowledge because it means things must change, and not everyone responds well to such a shift. It is, after all, how they likely ended up in a mess: by allowing things to take its course instead of changing it. Safety is the priority, even if it comes at considerable cost. It may mean getting professional help for a child or sibling or moving parents into assisted living after they vowed to age in place.

Aging parents is an issue all onto its own. We just scratch the surface, and we know there are family dynamics and deep histories that influence our attitudes and behaviors when it’s time to take over for an ailing parent. Siblings, even close friends of the family, have great sway and can muddle what seems an otherwise clear path. Every family is different; but every family has these issues. Draw comfort from that.

5. Remember to take care of you. If you let your work, your physical health and your emotional well-being suffer because of unresolved, or poorly resolved, family issues, soon it will be you calling with an emergency. And then who will everyone call upon?

You are tougher than you think. Now be tough with others who may not even realize they are undermining your ability to function as well as you could. Work together with all stakeholders on solutions that everyone can live with, even if initially they say they cannot.