Caregiver burnout is a very real issue for members of the “sandwich generation,” a nickname describing those responsible for bringing up their own children while caring for their aging, sometimes ill, parents at the same time. Typically in their late 30s through 50s and even 60s, sandwich generation members are no strangers to stress, guilt, helplessness, and being pulled in 17 different directions at once as they try to provide support for everyone around them. They’re also no strangers to getting pushed to or past their limits — in other words, they tend to burn out frequently due to responsibility overload.
So, how can these overworked caregivers handle that maxed-out feeling, or prevent it from happening in the first place? We spoke to the real experts — women who self-describe as members of the sandwich generation who are living the challenges of caregiver reality every day — to find out how they avoid or at least alleviate burnout. In their own words, here’s how they tackle caregiver stress and keep moving forward.
1. Share responsibilities — and stress.
“We do our best to divide and conquer within our family. That means even my 17- and 19-year-old sons help with Grandma. They walk her to the bathroom, hang out with her, and make her meals (and make sure she eats) when I am bogged down with work or simply need a break. My husband does all of the above and more. No other family is close so they can't help. I also started a local [private] "Sandwich Generation" Facebook page. It helps to know you're not alone. We share insights and resources…. No way to avoid burnout. Just doing our best.”
2. Start a new hobby.
“I walk in 5K races. I don't do it to win a trophy or have the best time for my age group; I do it for me. Most of the routes are beside a lake or have other soothing nature scenes that are good for my mental health. Also, most are on Saturday mornings, when life is less hectic with my obligations.”
3. Accept that you need support, too.
“The biggest issue I have is taking it all on myself. I have to sit back and tell myself it’s okay to ask for help, especially from my husband. Also, the Breathe app on my iPhone watch. This has been a lifesaver and helps me refocus.
4. Plan an escape — sans guilt.
“I started in my church choir six months before my husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I was able to stay during the two years he was ill and after his passing. I am not a singer, but that was my therapy — the only thing I did for me. [The choir members] are like family to me.”
5. Simplify your life.
“I started using tools like Amazon and Kroger's ClickList to take care of groceries and other basic items. I have a 16-year-old son who goes to a charter school that requires that he be driven to and from every day, I work full-time, and we have my mom and mother-in-law living in our city in separate assisted living facilities. So anything I can do to make it easier on myself — and free up some time so I'm not constantly on the go — is worth both the Prime fee or the $4.95 ClickList fee.”
6. Get exercise — for your body and mind.
“Find some form of exercise and do it at least four to five times per week, if not every day. For me: I run two times a week, swim 3 times a week, and lift [weights] two times per week. Otherwise I would be a big mess of hormones and rage, and it wouldn't be pretty. Also, reading gives me peace. Bring a book everywhere you go.”
7. Forgive yourself for showing weakness.
“Walking once or twice a week for a hour along the waterfront [helps me], or a soak in the tub. But my biggest stress reliever was/is the Dammit Doll — the physical act of wracking it on the countertop worked wonders. But the fact remains, nothing works 100 percent, and there will be times you hold a pity party of one and cry yourself to sleep.”
8. Channel your aging parent’s strength and patience.
I work in wellness, and coach [people on how to handle] burnout all the time, Ironically enough, it is my caregiving responsibilities that push me to the edge. So far, my best technique is to channel the love and energy of my mother through meditation. After all, she was the one that had the patience with dad all those years!”
9. Close your eyes, but open your ears.
“I listen to meditation and spa playlists for what mood I’m in. Stress relief, positive energy, upbeat, uplifting — whatever you’re feeling, you can find that on YouTube. It really helps me. I listen while I’m in the shower, or even [for] sleep music."
10. Treat yourself...
“I don’t deny treating myself to something I’ve been craving — a frou-frou coffee, a large fry at Mickey D’s, a night out with lady friends while the house looks like hell and laundry is backed up. Self-care is taught almost immediately in my daughter’s social work classes. They said most therapists have their own therapist… ideally it is a group… in which we all turn to in order to feel like we’re not alone and our feelings are valid.”
11. ...Even if it’s to something small.
“I take my car to the drive-through car wash and get the ‘rainbow’ soap.”
12. Reach out and befriend strangers who are in similar positions.
“[My] online Facebook community has helped me tremendously. I can read through the threads on my own time, pick the ones that resonate right now, and come away with a sense of community mixed with very practical advice, all while feeling connected.”
13. Prioritize self-care.
Remember these two mantras: ‘You cannot pour from an empty cup,’ and ‘You are not required to set yourself on fire to keep everyone else warm.’ Whatever that means to you… To me, it means regular exercise outside my house (I do Pilates classes and Irish dance), a part-time job, and being an active member of my parish choir. We caregivers must prioritize ourselves, and remember that self-care is not selfish.