It’s highly likely that you’ve heard of the “sandwich generation” and equally likely that you either know people who are part of it or are a member yourself. This is the generation of Americans in their 40s and 50s who not only care for their children, but also take care of their aging parents.
There are a variety of challenges for this oft-overwhelmed group, including feeling like there’s not enough time, money and emotional bandwidth to care for those under their charge while also tending to their own health and wellness. This is especially true for those who are living with multiple generations of their family under one roof.
While the closeness of co-living can be a blessing, it can also lead to some difficulties. Caroline Atterton, LCSW, lead therapist in the senior intensive outpatient program at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, addresses these challenges in her responses to the following top questions about successfully living with and caring for one another in a multigenerational home.
What is the best way to prevent conflict in a multigenerational home?
From the get-go, establish a pattern of regular family meetings to foster open communication and review what’s working and what’s not working. Families that talk together, stay together.
Allow everyone to express needs and feel involved in decisions. Avoid having sensitive conversations about a family member who is not present. Making decisions or discussing important topics can be difficult, but if you don’t include everyone, it can inadvertently create more conflict.
It is also important to include your children by keeping conversations age-appropriate. This will help to reduce any anxiety they may be experiencing as they adjust to new changes and dynamics in the home. This also gives you the opportunity to model effective ways to express feelings, resolve conflict and be empathetic to others.
How can family rules and routines be maintained when multiple generations live together?
Open communication with all the family members’ input about rules and responsibilities is vital. Keep to your regular family routines and daily structure, and clearly communicate this to everyone. Doing so creates consistency and allows everyone to know each other’s plans. If family members are running on different schedules or have different expectations about arrangements and responsibilities, it can quickly add to stress and tension.
Three important tips:
- Put time aside for family time, parent-child time, grandparent-child time, couple time and personal time.
- Share family chores. Children can help out their parents and their grandparents, and it is equally important for elderly relatives to also have household responsibilities, which will help foster independence and a sense of purposefulness.
- Recognize that family members all have different needs related to nutrition, sleep, exercise, noise levels and socialization. Respect one another’s needs and make sacrifices when necessary to ensure that everyone’s health and wellness is encouraged and protected.
How should you handle parenting when grandparents in the home think they know what’s best?
It’s OK to seek help or ask an older relative their opinion, but parents do not need to seek approval for their actions and decisions. Acknowledge the very special and unique bond that they as grandparents have with their grandchildren, while kindly but clearly communicating parenting choices and reinforcing that the children’s upbringing and any related decision-making is the parents’ responsibility. By setting expectations in regard to things such as the children’s mealtimes, snacks, computer and screen-time, activities and bedtimes, miscommunication can be avoided.
How can members of the “sandwich generation” take care of themselves?
It’s easy to forget about yourself when you’re busy taking care of others. And as much as you might care about your family, it is easy to become overwhelmed. You are the glue holding everything together, but if you don’t take care of yourself, you could become unstuck.
Here are some signs to watch for and ways to cope:
- Recognize symptoms of stress, such as poor sleep, feeling exhausted, feeling increasingly sick, and not doing or enjoying things you normally enjoy.
- Be aware of your feelings, such as frustration, irritability, helplessness, fear, anger or guilt for feeling anger.
- Know that it is OK and normal to have these feelings and allow yourself to feel and find an outlet for your feelings, rather than stuffing them down and soldiering on.
- Do not put yourself down, and remind yourself that you are doing the best that you can.
- Don’t feel ashamed to ask for help, and know it’s OK to accept help from others.
- Find someone you trust, such as a family member, friend, co-worker, neighbor or a professional to talk to about your feelings and frustrations.
- Learn how to say “no” to things you cannot do.
- Engage in self-care activities that reduce stress — spend time with your social support network, eat healthily, avoid mood-altering substances, make sure to get enough sleep, exercise and do things that you’re passionate about.
- Encourage everyone in your home to also practice self-care — including teens — for a generally happier and healthier household.
“Even though there can be occasional challenges, there are so many wonderful social and emotional benefits that come from close family connections,” Atterton says. “Multigenerational living situations can enhance life satisfaction, well-being and purpose for all. Grandparents get more quality time with both their adult children and grandchildren, and can be valued supportive role models.”