"Why can't you bring me NOW?" Sarah whines. "You said you would come to the concert," demands Sam. "Why do you never care about what I need?" If you are a family caregiver of an elderly parent and you still have teenagers at home, you may be accustomed to such complaints. You are busy meeting your mother's needs -- making sure she gets her medications on schedule, driving her to the doctor, and making sure her kitchen is stocked. But you still need to have dinner available, drive your teens to their activities, and monitor them closely to make sure they don't get into trouble. Sometimes it can feel like too much.
Most of the family caregivers who find themselves "sandwiched" between two different generations -- caring for both at once -- are women. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there are roughly 20 million women in the "sandwich generation" and that they devote 2.4 billion hours of their time to their children and their elderly parents each year. And even when the kids leave the house, caregiving duties may continue for the long term; in a 1990 article, Newsweek reported that the average American woman will spend 17 years raising children and 18 years helping her aging parents or in-laws.
According to a study on "The Cluttered Nest" by researchers at the University of Nebraska, people of the sandwich generation worry about their duty to their own children versus their duty to their parents. They worry about their family's financial and physical resources, spreading themselves too thin, and their own ability to cope with what faces them. So how can a family caregiver, who is already stretched to the limit with caregiving responsibilities, handle the often unending demands placed on them by their teenager(s)? Here are some tips that might work in tidying up your "cluttered nest":
Hold a family meeting. As with many things involving family, family meetings are recommended to be held as soon as possible and on an ongoing basis. This is the time to discuss conflicts and come up with solutions together. Ask everyone to contribute their thoughts; it may encourage an otherwise uncommunicative teen to come out of their shell. If your family meetings seem to go nowhere, bring in a third party -- such as a friend, clergy, or other family member -- to moderate.
Educate teens about their grandparent's condition. If a grandparent is ill, talk to children honestly about the situation, focusing on the grandparent's abilities as well as disabilities. Recognize that for teens, illness can be scary. And some diseases, such as Alzheimer's, can have an impact on them as well. They will be better able to cope if they understand the nature of the disease and what to expect as it progresses.
Ensure that family members have their privacy. This is especially important for teenagers, who need a place to retreat and regroup. If your parent moves in with you, give them their own space -- their own room, ideally -- as well as a TV, phone or computer. Make sure they understand that the kids in the house need their space and alone-time as well.
Expect and enlist your teen's help, but be realistic about what they can do. Teens need to understand that they are part of the family and as such will be depended upon to help, but remember -- they are still quite self-centered. In order to get help with specific tasks, prepare a list of all the things that you are doing on a daily and weekly basis and ask them which of those things they can take over for you. Limit what you ask them to do to discrete tasks, and then hold them to it.
Don't ignore those who don't vocalize their needs as well. It's tempting to simply "oil the squeaky wheel" and move on. But some teens, particularly boys, may be struggling but not know how to express it, or may not want to further stress you with their complaints. Ask teens on a regular basis how they are feeling, and acknowledge aloud that this is a hard situation for all.
Focus on your marriage. Carve out time for your spouse each week, doing something you both enjoy. Talk about the situation you're in and don't let your marriage suffer from the pressures of a multigenerational household. Your spouse can be a great source of comfort, and you want to nurture that relationship.
Get help with the paperwork. Insurance forms, assisted living applications AND college essays all at once can be quite overwhelming. You need someone to assist you with this and to double-check your work -- you don't want to tell your teen to write that he "can groom himself" on his college applications!
Prepare a long-range financial plan. It's important that you don't deplete your retirement savings to pay for your children's college education or your parents' long-term care. Student loans are available, and a professional financial planner can help you figure out how to use your parents' own assets to finance their care for as long as possible.
Finally, look for the blessings. It can be very rewarding to care for an elderly parent, and many caregivers report great satisfaction with the closeness they achieve with a parent for whom they are caring. And it can be a terrific learning experience for teens as well, as they learn to sacrifice their own needs for those of an aging relative.
Do you have strategies of your own for helping teenagers cope with family caregiver stresses? Please share your thoughts and ideas here.
The Visiting Nurse Service of New York has created a library of helpful information and videos to help the "sandwich generation" cope with family caregiving responsibilities and avoid caregiver burnout. To view these resources, please visit our website.
For more by Kathryn Haslanger, click here.
For more on caregiving, click here.