01/31/2009 11:57 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

We of the Sandwich Generation

The duel burden of raising children and caring for aging parents is becoming commonplace for baby boomers, and will probably last longer for us than it did for generations past. Based on a Pew Research Center study, one in eight middle-aged Americans are raising a child and caring for an aging parent.

We're called the Sandwich generation, and studies show that as a group, we're stressed out emotionally, stretched to our limits financially, and physically fatigued. Why? Because we of the sandwich generation are faced with conflicting emotions. Trust me, I know. I'm living this every day; I have four kids ranging in age from 18 to 36, and my octogenarian parents live with me. I'm not complaining - I treasure the opportunity to be around five generations of loved ones, and what's more, I highly recommend it. But nevertheless, the situation posses difficulties that must be addressed.

First off, we're parents. We've loved every labor-intensive minute of hands-on, 24/7, "line-production" parenting, but we're ready to have some freedom as adults, and reduce our oversight to a more reasonable work schedule. Admit it, it's true. As much as we feign otherwise, we want our children to leave the nest - a natural developmental transition in the stages of life. We want them to become independent, productive citizens out in the world-at-large. We desire for them to be successful. Yet, there is no doubt that most of us feel a certain sense of loss when they do leave - a bittersweet conclusion to a certain chapter in our lives.

However, while we are coming to terms with the idea that it's time for our kids to differentiate and become independent, they very often can't find the jobs they seek, and end up back at home after college, leaving us in a state of limbo. At this point our adult kids are too old for us to wait up for them at night, and beyond the age when we need to badger them about cleaning their rooms. Yet they still need our love, compassion, and parental input, and they still need to be integrated back into the responsibilities of everyday life in the household.

Here's where the sandwich part comes in. At the same time that we thought we'd be empty-nesters, we're watching our aging parents decline in health and ability, witnessing the transformation of formerly strong authority figures in our lives, into vulnerable, sometimes feeble dependents who need us to care for them. This is a reversal of fortune that can have devastating consequences, if not handled with insight and compassion.

What can we do to navigate this phase of our lives with grace and foresight, and keep our emotional and physical health in a state of harmony? Here's what I've discovered:

For aging parents: Help your parents to remain independent and functional for as long as they can. Encourage them to be proactive about their health, to take their medications, and to follow healthy regimens. Accompany them to doctor appointments if you can, so you can be their advocate. Even if they live with you, help them feel as independent as possible.

For young adult children: Treat your adult kids with respect and compassion. If they are living at home with you, encourage them to participate in the responsibilities of every day life, but understand that they are looking for freedom, and may feel badly about having to come back home in the first place. Don't feed into their feelings of failure. Take the high road. Discuss what they imagine proper boundaries should be, and work out a reasonable schedule with them. Your goal isn't to infantilize them by doing all their chores for them; you want to recognize and respect them as adults who have the ability to care for themselves. Resist the urge to nag, but be prepared to have an 'adult' conversation about responsibilities if they don't do their share. It's important to strike a balance. It's not you and them, it's us.

For aging parents: Be attentive to cognitive decline. Check in with their primary-care doctor to make sure the medications they are taking are up to date, and don't conflict with each other. Encourage social activities with their peers. Get your parents involved with a senior citizen's group that meets regularly.

For young adult children: They may still need you, but it's nice to remember that your adult kids have lots to offer you as well. Enjoy them as the adults they've become! Listen to them, and give them credit for knowing what they know. Giving them respect for what they're doing will go a long way toward shoring up their confidence and self-esteem.

For aging parents: Make a plan. It's never easy to talk about difficult transitions, but you'd be wise to do so. Find out what your parents' wishes are with regards to end-of-life planning. Help them make a will, and make sure they have been given legal advice. Decide in advance, and with your parents' blessing, what actions you'll take if and when a physical and/or cognitive decline makes it impossible for them to be self-sufficient, or for you to properly care for them.

For aging parents, and adult children: Encourage multi-generational discussions in your home. Bring all generations together round the dinner table to share memories. All parts of the "sandwich" enjoy this!

For the sandwich generation: Take care of yourself. You can't be much help to anyone else if your own health deteriorates. Reach out for support from friends, clergy, and extended family members. Breathe. Meditate. Talk a walk. Take a nap. Laugh.

For everyone: Find the silver lining. Rather than getting swept up in the drama, the burdens, the complications, or feelings of loss, try to enjoy the moments you've been given, along with your memories. The history you're making now with your family is actually a precious gift. Treat it that way. By overcoming some of the inherent difficulties of a blended generational life, you'll be gaining insights and a sense of closeness with your loved ones that you may not have discovered otherwise.