Being a sandwich family caregiver (Episode 51)

If you are raising kids and caring for an adult at the same time, you’re what’s known as a “sandwich family caregiver.” In this episode, Kay Coughlin talks about her personal experience being a sandwich family caregiver. She describes the range of life experiences (like having to deal with piles of unsolicited advice) that are common to sandwich family caregivers and that make this group unique.

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Transcript: Being a sandwich family caregiver (Episode 51)

Hi there. I’m your host, Kay Coughlin and you’re listening to From One Caregiver To Another, I am a sandwich family caregiver. I have kids at home and I am the primary caregiver for my own mother. And I don’t believe the old stories and traditions about being a caregiver have to be be true for us. I believe we sandwich family caregivers and family caregivers can have dreams, even when we have caregiver responsibilities. We have value as individuals, we deserve to say no and to have our own lives. Nobody can do it all of course. But we can decide what’s okay with us, what’s not okay with us, and we can dare to be ourselves. This is episode 51.

Okay. Hi there. Before I dive into talking about what it’s like to be a sandwich family caregiver, if you haven’t considered joining my workshop on boundaries and the holidays, that’s going to be starting on October 19th. So go register today. This will be a great workshop for you if you find yourself getting anxious about the things you’re going to be expected to participate in during the holidays, or maybe if you’re dreading some of your holiday traditions.

Whether you just don’t like those things or whether somebody else has a pattern of acting in ways that make you uncomfortable. That’s where learning about boundaries can help you have a more peaceful holiday season. You’ll find the link for it at slash learn more. And I’ve put that link in the show notes.

And while you’re there, go check out my free community for caregivers of all kinds to talk about boundaries and human giver syndrome. And that community is totally free. So if there’s anything stopping you from checking it out, don’t let that stop you.

Since I just did a series of podcasts about the four stages of being a caregiver. And as a reminder, those four stages that I have identified are these early stage, then short term or acute long-term, or a little more stable and then post caregiver. And they don’t necessarily go in that order, but those are the four stages. Today I want to talk about being a sandwich family caregiver. As I said in the introduction, a sandwich family caregiver is somebody who is responsible for caring for both children and an adult at the same time.

And this is my situation. I have two teenage boys who are both still living at home and I am the primary caregiver for my own mom, who lives next door to us in a house that is attached to ours. And she actually lives on the other side of our garage. And her house is what’s known as a granny flat, which I know is super adorable.

I’ve been a sandwich family caregiver for a long time now, and it hasn’t always been the case that mom lived next door to us. If I look back to when I was an early stage caregive, so when I was just beginning to really think about and take on some caregiving responsibilities, and that would have been back in 2009 at some point. So I’ve been doing this for 11 years.

Back then my husband and I were living two hours away from my parents and our boys were still very little, but they were getting to be more active with school and sports and you know, the other social stuff that kids do. We, my husband and I, were spending a lot of time driving back and forth from our house to my parents’ house because they were starting to slow down just a little bit. And they were suddenly finding it to be a bigger challenge to keep up with their house maintenance, which included five acres of property.

What I remember the most about those early times was this feeling of just juggling everything. Gosh, it was like, I was always worried that if I did one thing or concentrated on one thing, that something else was going to fall through the cracks, because I just didn’t have enough time in my day.

And I felt like I just didn’t have enough space in my brain to keep track of all of it. I felt like we were not doing a good job of prioritizing our own kids because I was spending so much time checking on my parents.

And I have to admit that at the time, I think I was probably overhelping my parents. In fact, I want to tell you that I’ve got a podcast episode coming up on the topic of overfunctioning. So please remember, there is no judgment here. At the time, I think I may have even been probably interfering with their lives a little bit, but I was certainly well-intentioned and I was just thinking ahead all the time to what we were going to do, my husband and I, once they really slowed down.

All these years later, our situation looks very different. Now we did move to live next door to my parents, and that was in 2012. And then my father passed away very suddenly in 2014. My boys who were really little back then are both teenagers now. And my mom who is of course a widow now is still in pretty good shape. And I have to say her mind is sharp as a tack. I’m a not kidding about that. You can ask anybody who knows. But she doesn’t drive anymore. So that’s something that I need to do for her now when, when she needs to go out.

And we are still in the middle of this pandemic. So that has really forced us to figure out new ways to handle our relationship, my mom and I. And to make sure that mom gets the social life that she loves so much. And I have to say with my mom, it’s not just the social life that she needs when she is in relationships with people, she gives so much, she’s an amazing person to be a friend with. I mean, I adore her. I am proud of her. And that part of her life has gotten harder during the pandemic.

Just as a reminder to you, especially if you’re new to this podcast and new to my philosophy about being a caregiver, I put the caregiver at the center of everything I talk about and everything I do when I work with caregivers. So this is not going to be about the care receiver and that’s the term I used for the adults we care for. And this is not about being a better caregiver. This is about you as a person.

I’ve got a set of things here that I’ve noticed are specific to being a sandwich family caregiver. And this is with me in my own life, but also this comes from all of the things I’ve noticed as I spend time in sandwich family caregiver community.

Of course, these aren’t going to apply to every sandwich family caregiver, we are all unique. And the last thing that I want to do is perpetuate any stereotypes, but these are some things to notice and to watch for that are unique about what we do as sandwich family caregivers, and the kind of lives that we lead.

Number one, we are actively parenting and at the same time navigating relationships with our adult relatives and those relationships have to change when you’re in a caregiver situation. So we’ve got the parenting going on and there’s a reason that we need to use the word parenting as a verb. A lot of the time, as I said, I do have two teenage young men, so I know that in a lot of ways, I have to be aware of them at, I think a pretty high level, a lot of the time, and that’s a lot all on its own.

But when you are a caregiver too, you are also going to be actively shifting that relationship so that you can be in relationship as adults until we are caregivers.

I think relationships we have with adult relatives can be fairly unchanged, and that’s because they don’t have to change. A lot of times nothing is going to force you to renegotiate relationships with the family members who are adults in your life. But when you are the caregiver, that is not the case at all. You have to rewrite that relationship.

Now, the question here is, are you going to do that intentionally or accidentally? And I believe in doing it intentionally. Because you’re probably going to be pretty unhappy if you try to be in this adult relationship just the way you’ve done it all your life. Your situation is going to be frustrating at best if the adult you are caring for still thinks you are a child, or still thinks you are the same person you were 20 years ago or even five years ago, or gosh, I guess even a year ago.

As I say to my own mom often enough, you know, mom, I’m not 12 years old anymore and we’re both adults now. I don’t like the way we just handled that thing that came up between us. Can we try it again? But this time let’s come at it like we’re both adults.

So for us as sandwich family caregivers, we’re both parenting and doing this other new thing at the same time

Number two: advice about parenting. If you are a parent, you know exactly what I’m talking about here, it’s like, it’s always a low level hum in the background. Even strangers at the grocery store are very happy to give us advice on how to be a better parent. Over the years, I’ve heard advice about pretty much every aspect of parenting. And most of it tends to point out that somebody disapproves of my parenting choices and most of this advice, I never asked for it in the first place.

Number three: advice about caregiving. Ugh, just like parenting advice, once somebody gets the idea that you’re a caregiver, they are going to have plenty to say about it. And they will tell you. I find that most of it is critical or completely useless and very little of what people will have to say has anything to do with your circumstances.

People are going to tell you about their great, great, great aunt Elsie, who in 1885 took care of her bachelor uncle. They are going to talk about how a good caregiver is such a good example for the rest of us, because they’re willing to sacrifice everything for their care receiver. And they’re going to talk about how they themselves never want to be a caregiver because they just aren’t cut out for it.

If I had a nickel for every time somebody gave me this kind of advice or any kind of advice about caregiving, you know, I’d be pretty rich.

Number four: busy-ness of growing kids. And again, I’m sure I don’t have to explain this one to you if you’re a parent, because if you are raising kids, you know how many things can get piled onto your schedule while you’re not looking. No matter how many things that you say no to, and how many things you opt out of, there is always more stuff to do, whether it’s the doctor and the dentist or mandatory sports meetings that turn out they could have been an email. Or maybe for you, this one is just about keeping up with kids who have a lot of energy all the time.

So no matter how you look at it, raising kids is a busy time and that’s even if you are really intentional with your time and you say no to a lot of stuff.

Number five: career.  If you are raising kids, you are also most likely in your prime years of earning an income. And if so you are trying to squeeze yourself in between kids and caring for an adult.

In other words, if you are the filling in your own sandwich family, trying to have a career can feel like a lot on top of that. There is no right or wrong answer to this. But a lot of people are going to judge you for whatever choice you make. Please know, and I know I said this before, but I have to say it again, I am never going to judge you for whatever choice you make about this. Here at From One Caregiver To Another, we really believe that every person has the right to be just exactly where you are today and who you are today. What you need from me is unconditional acceptance and support. And that’s what you’re going to get.

Number six: finances. Oh, I know this is a big one for a lot of sandwich family caregivers. We just have to deal with so many decisions about who is responsible for what expenses and for whom and the confusion of whose bank account are things going to come out of. One of the things that comes up for me in conversations with my sister and brothers is what our mom should and should not have to be responsible for with her money.

Now I have to give my mom a lot of credit. Again, she is an excellent manager of her own money. So it’s not even as if this is a problem or that she’s part of the problem. She’s not, she’s part of the solution. And she’s totally great about this. It’s just confusing. And it’s expensive and we all know that money can be hard to talk about in the best of circumstances, especially in families where you’re bringing in all kinds of drama about money to begin with.

Number seven: significant others. Humans want to be in stable and supportive romantic relationships. We just do. That’s part of who we are. So whether you’re married or dating or anywhere in between, it can be a challenge to figure out when to make time and how to make time for your significant other. And I mean, that can be a challenge at the best of time.

When you are a sandwich family caregiver, having a romantic relationship can be especially challenging. And if the person you are caring for happens to be your significant other, I’d like to take a minute here and recommend that you read the book “Already Toast” by Kate Washington. And I’ll put a link to that in the show notes. I promise you are going to feel less alone after you read it.

Number eight: boundary confusion and guilt. Let me state for the record that both guilt and being confused about boundaries – what’s okay with you, what’s not okay with you and who gets to do what in your life – these things are totally normal for humans.

When you are being pulled in a bunch of different directions as a sandwich family caregiver, and you feel like you’re constantly having to choose between your kids, your care receiver, your significant other, and maybe your career and some other things too, well, that’s a lot to sort out. If you do struggle with guilt, I want to really recommend that you listen to the previous two episodes of this podcast. That’s going to be episodes 49 and 50, which are about boundaries and guilt.

Number nine: burnout, overwhelm and exhaustion. Okay. These are pretty typical states of being for a lot of adults these days, even adults who don’t have to split their attention and energy in the way that sandwich family caregivers often have to do. The best way to overcome all of this is to learn about boundaries.

And that is why I talk about them so much. And that’s why I created this whole free online community to talk about boundaries. And again, the link for that is in the show notes. And I want to let you know, it can also help to understand human giver syndrome, which we also discuss in that free online community about boundaries, because they are very connected, these two topics.

Number 10, and this is the last one: feeling isolated and like nobody understands you and what you’re going through. I get it. It can be so hard for sandwich family caregivers to make time and reserve some energy for friends and for community. And a lot of people are so judgmental of parents and caregivers, that it can be hard to know who to trust.

Feeling isolated is so common for us. And it’s also really dangerous. Humans do much, much better when we let people into our lives. And when we feel like we’re part of a community. And there’s a lot of research on this, I’m not making this up yet. It’s one of the things that’s most difficult for those of us who are sandwich family caregivers.

And I want to encourage you again, that if you need community, please, please, please go and join our free community on boundaries and human giver syndrome. You’re going to meet a lot of wonderful caregivers there.

So that’s the 10 items that I have noticed that really in combination make life interesting and unique and complicated for sandwich family caregivers. And as I say, they might not all apply to you, but they’re common enough that I think it’s really helpful to look at them together in this way as kind of a set of things that go together.

I’m sure there’s something I have missed as I tried to categorize the things that I’ve learned firsthand, and that I’ve learned from other sandwich family caregivers are unique and stressful about their lives. Now I’d love to hear from you anytime about any reason, but especially reach out to me or leave a comment if you think I’ve forgotten to put something important on this list.

When you put all of these things together that I’ve listed, they really make us a unique group and a special group. And, and we have unique and special needs in a lot of ways. We are facing the majority of life’s typical pressures all at once. And I guess what I want you to know most of all is that you’re not alone. I see you. And I’m one of you and I’m here for you.

Thank you so much for listening today, you can learn more about me and about all of this work at That’s Facilitator On And there’s a lot of really good stuff there, including links to my book and to learn more about human giver syndrome and of course, a link to the free community on boundaries.

If you want almost daily doses of straight talk for family caregivers and sandwich family caregivers who want to dare to live their own lives, please follow me on Instagram. And there’s a link for that in the show notes. If you liked this episode, please leave a review and think of two people you can tell about it. If they’re new to podcasts, well you can show them how to subscribe. Word of mouth is the best way to help podcasts grow. And if we can make this podcast grow more, people are going to be able to find their way here to get the help they need to live their best life as a caregiver.

I can’t wait to be here with you again in the next episode From One Caregiver To Another.

your guide

Kay Coughlin, CEO of Facilitator On Fire, is a business coach for the non-profit sector and social justice businesses. She is also well-known for being an advocate for family caregivers.

In every forum she can find, she shouts that it's OK for every human to earn a living, set and enforce boundaries around their bodies, thoughts, feelings and actions. You can join Kay's free, private online community to talk about boundaries here.

Kay also teaches about emotional labor, how to rest, and Human Giver Syndrome, and is the host of the "From One Caregiver to Another" podcast and author of "From One Caregiver to Another - Overcoming Your Emotional Grind."

Kay is well-known for her public speaking on boundaries and self-care. 

Facilitator on Fire is a subsidiary of Donor Relations Mindset LLC, which Kay founded in 2015. She lives with her husband and children in central Ohio, and is the primary caregiver for her own mother, who lives right next door. Kay can be found on LinkedIn and Instagram.

Copyright 2022. All rights reserved, Julia Kay Coughlin and Facilitator On Fire.

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