Kids Caught in Caregiving's Shuffle:
7 Tips to Balance Their Life
They are known as the Sandwich Generation, caregivers caught between multiple generations, caring for their aging parents and their children at the same time. As most of them will tell you, caregivers with kids are often torn between the many responsibilities that come with parenting, elder care, and the rest of what is collectively called life. The load is heavy for each generation in this mix.
Though caring for elderly parents or loved ones is probably most taxing for the caregiver, it can also wreak havoc on the caregiver's family, especially young children who need their parents most, or adolescents who – though they'd never admit in so many words – may need them even more.
“There are only so many hours in the day,” explains Susan Cunningham, certified senior advisor and author of Unwrapping the Sandwich Generation: Life Vignettes About Seniors and Their Adult Children. “When you take on the role of caregiver, something's got to give, and unfortunately, it's often the immediate family of the caregiver.”
Naturally, as you spend more time nurturing your loved one, you'll have less time to spend nurturing your children. That’s just a fact.
But caring for your loved one doesn't have to mean lack of care for your kids -- in fact, involving children in the caregiving process may prove worthwhile and rewarding for all involved. “I've seen it where the children found themselves drawn closer to their grandparents,” Cunningham recalls, “then I've seen the other end where the kids act out and turn away from the parent . . . because they don't get as much attention.”
Here are seven tips to help ease the effects of caregiving on your children:
- Involve the whole family. When kids feel a part of caregiving, they tend to handle this huge life change better, Cunningham explains. Children can help with some caregiving responsibilities: younger kids, for example, can read to your loved one or they can do artwork together, while an older teen may take their loved one to a movie or out for a walk.
- Come up with a game plan early on. Figure out who can do what for themselves and what your loved one and your kids each need help with, says Abaya, because “caregivers should never just step in and take over everything and leave their parents not to do anything.” First, make a list of responsibilities your children need help with; then make one for your loved one; finally, make a list of who in your family and community you can call on to pitch in.
- Talk honestly about the whole situation. Children may be scared or apprehensive when they see your loved one weather physical, emotional or mental difficulties. Honest, open conversations and explanations on a level kids can understand and register may be the best way to diffuse their uneasiness. If your loved one has a disease, for example, tell your children and explain that it can be a normal part of growing old. “I tell caregivers to tell their children it's kind of like grandma is going back to being a kid again,” Cunningham says. “Think of the grandparent as (needing the same kind of help) as a younger sibling would.”
- Don't discount a kid’s way of giving care and dealing with caregiving issues. “Many times, children understand more than you think and sometimes have simpler ways of doing things,” says Abaya. She recalls a caregiver whose Alzheimer’s-stricken mother accused her young grandson of stealing her food. The caregiver sat down with her son and explained what the disease did to grandma’s brain, pleading with her son to be patient. But it was the grandson who truly bettered the situation: the next time an accusation was made, he took his grandmother by her hand, led her to the refrigerator, and assured her that there was plenty of food in the house. “A kid very simply diffused this emotional situation by addressing the grandmother's concern and not accusing or fighting her,” Abaya points out.
- Keep some normalcy for the kids. “Try to have a separate family night,” says Cunningham. “It's not easy to do, but when you plan ahead as much as possible, it's easier to make it happen.” Whether you used to enjoy Monopoly or movie night as a family before you took on caregiving, be sure to preserve at least some of your quality time with your nuclear family.
- Get support for the whole family. Cunningham recommends getting everyone involved in a support group or seeking out other caregiving families with kids close in age for play dates or conversation. “Kids will talk more to kids than they'll talk to their parents,” Cunningham says. Clue in school counselors, teachers, and day care professionals on your caregiving responsibilities and request their support as necessary.
- Ask for help. “When we're raising our kids, we're not afraid to ask for help, but for some reason it's not so accepted with elder care,” says Abaya. While parents may organize carpools for school, for instance, caregivers usually don't do so when taking their loved ones to endless appointments. But doing it all by yourself can mean major burnout, which will ultimately affect everyone involved -- you and the people you care for. “Do what you can . . . and bring everybody in the family into the caregiving scenario,” says Abaya.
Ursula Furi-Perry is a writer based in Haverhill, Massachusetts.
Resources: The Sandwich Generation newsletter and information for caregivers.
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