The Sandwich Generation must care for themselves

— by Nilgin Yusuf

Photo: Daiga Ellaby via Unsplash


No matter how much we might adore the delightful squeals of a grandchild or cherish the tender moments with an elderly parent, being a cross-generational caregiver is not easy. The phrase ‘Sandwich Generation’ was originally coined in 1981 by Dorothy A. Miller, and Elaine Brody, two social workers and academics, to describe Baby Boomers caught between the needs of multiple generations.  Since then, second, third and fourth waves of human sandwiches are experiencing this frenetic, merry-go-round of care.

In between cheerful granny making pasta collages, bad cop mum dealing with surly offspring and dutiful daughter tending to an increasingly vulnerable parent, may be someone struggling not to be subsumed by their responsibilities. ‘It’s better to give than receive,’ said Francis of Assisi. But then he was a Saint.  And, he was a bloke. Without wishing to underplay the role of male carers, it’s predominantly women who assume this role of ‘kin-keeper.’ 62% of intergenerational caregivers are women, according to a 2020 report by the Office of National Statistics.

Annette Byford, a psychotherapist and author of Once a Mother, Always a Mother (Ortus Press, 2022) has seen the fallout of women struggling to meet all these demands. Over decades, she’s noticed changes in social patterns and expectations. The first is that offspring stay at home longer due to job insecurity and sky-high rents, thus extending a mother’s caring role. Mothers find it difficult not to be drawn into the lives of their adult children, “much more than they used to be” , notes Byford.

Secondly, due to the staggering cost of childcare and nurseries, grandmothers are more involved with their children’s children, with many travelling long distances on a regular basis to meet this need. This also has an economic imperative (free childcare) and is not simply a matter of family commitment and obligation. ‘I often hear the phrase, “I have no choice” and that’s how many women feel. That they have no choice. Many women can feel squeezed into a corner.’

While caring for our family is a “decent thing to do”, in many ways a gift and it “makes us better human beings,” there is a tipping point, she warns.  Women stretched too thin will sometimes sacrifice their own health, lives and dreams. Something that used to feel rewarding can turn into something exhausting and diminishing. All kinds of stresses: emotional, phycological, financial and practical alongside anxiety, can sometimes lead to real mental health issues such as depression or burnout. ‘That’s when caring for others becomes a form of self-harm. An equally desperate scenario is when the woman can no longer give adequate care, because she has failed to look after herself.’

There are warning signs: “a sense of frustration, resentment, growing competitiveness with one’s peers, a quickness to anger, inability to sleep and loss of interest in the world around us.” The metaphor Byford uses to explain the importance of looking after ourselves when caring for others is stark and vivid.  ‘On a plane, we are always told to put the oxygen mask on ourselves first.’ For Generation Sandwich, building resilience and maintaining a focus on personal needs is not a luxury but a necessity.


Photo: Ageing Better & Bias Cut



*Look after yourself: Self-care in this context is not about face packs and spa dates but the absolute basics. Good nutrition, regular hydration, regular exercise and sleep. Love yourself as much as others.

*Set boundaries around your time and availability “If you don’t set boundaries, it will eat you up. To be boundaried Is reasonable. Don’t feel guilty about it” advises Byford.  Your time is as important as their time. It’s all about mental survival and maintaining strength.

*Stay in the moment.  In situations of overload, all sorts of approaches to mindfulness can help. Yoga, breathing exercises, gardening, shelling peas.  Anything that calms everything down for you to emerge with greater clarity and renewed energy.

*Delegate and seek help. If you are seen as capable, efficient and selfless, the assumption will be you are fine. Ask for help before the situation becomes critical.  Can you share your load with family members? Ask neighbours or friends for help? With elderly parents, might it be time to introduce an element of professional care?

*Connect with others but be mindful of who you spend precious time with. Stay away from those who corrode your sense of self-worth or make you feel inadequate. ‘Find friends who are good for you,’ encourages Byford. ‘And share with them how you feel. Don’t sit on this on your own.’ Seek out support groups including online.

*Remember what makes you happy. Remember how it was to be young and carefree? Are you able to touch base with whatever sets off your happy chemicals? Singing, dancing, journaling, fell-walking, riding your bike. Finding the time for neglected hobbies, activities and pastimes might be a way to introduce balance and touch base with lost “me time.”

*Allow nature to help. There’s a wealth of science to back up the importance of nature in everyday wellbeing. Walking in the outdoors or by water, listening to birdsong, growing your own vegetables, spending time with animals, observing and enjoying the shifting seasons, are all grounding, healing activities. Let nature enfold and care for you.


Nilgin Yusuf is a writer and regular TNMA contributor. 


*If you find yourself feeling isolated, depressed or developing physical symptoms which may (or may not) be psychosomatic, you may need to seek help from a professional.

Annette Byford can be contacted via, a nationwide network that matches individuals with the right counsellors or therapists.




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