21st Century Aging

Living longer and better.

Middle Age in Uncharted Territory

The Perils of the “Sandwich Generation”

Stresses on the baby boomer generation are numerous. While many boomers are still working and planning for retirement in an uncertain economic climate, they are also increasingly confronted with taking care of a parent, a child, or both. A recent study from the Pew Research Center, as reported in the Wall Street Journal, noted that, “Forty-eight percent of adults ages 40 to 59 provided some financial support to at least one grown child in the past year.” Additionally, the study found that 21% of adults in the same age-range provided support to a parent. Combined with caretaking roles, boomers or middle-aged adults may also be trying to manage their own health problems.

Needless to say, the stress of all of this can be overwhelming.

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Rates of depression are skyrocketing among baby boomers and middle-aged adults, and the latter group has the highest suicide rates in the country for the second year in a row. While suicide rates have historically been the highest in very elderly men, a 2010 New York Times article reports that rates of suicide in men and women ages 45-54 are higher than any other group. Equally as disquieting are increasing rates of illicit drug use and binge drinking among baby boomers. Adding to all of this, a recent New York Times article, citing research from the Journal of the American Medical Association, “found that boomers were more likely to be obese, more likely to have high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes -- and less likely to be physically active."

Though it is overly reductionist to imply that rates of depression, suicide, and difficulty maintaining health are solely related to caregiving responsibilities, the generation that has done it all might be crumbling from all of the pressure.

Clearly, some middle-aged adults and baby boomers are being asked to fulfill roles that are unduly taxing and the stress is taking its toll. In addition to depression and substance use, feeling pressured to worry about others may result in physical problems for those caretakers who do not manage their stress.

Caretaking requires an innate ability to multitask, but even for those who are gifted at dividing their attention, things get overlooked. For many adults caring for parents, a child, and even a spouse, it is their own bodies and minds that are overlooked. However, not taking care of oneself has a number of consequences. Rates of depression are higher among some caretakers and long-term depression can lead to health problems.

This information often does little to convince people who feel pulled in a dozen different directions. Rather, the most important thing for caretakers to know is that if you don’t take care of yourself, it is much harder to care for others. This is easier said than done. One of the main difficulties I see in caretakers is that they don’t know how, or don’t feel entitled to ask for help.

Asking for help is hard for a lot of complicated reasons. Sometimes, as caretakers, we have our egos invested in our ability to help others. Let’s face it, it can feel good to imagine that we are providing something that no one else can. Sometimes this is actually true. Often it is not. 

We are facing a time in which the numbers of people we need to worry about are increasing. The average life span has increased exponentially in our lifetime. If you find yourself to be someone who is predisposed to caring for others, you will likely have a number of people to worry about in decades to come. The question is, how high is the cost of caring for others? Can you find a way to take care of yourself as well?

We are all more effective at taking care of others when we put ourselves first. It is not selfish. This means slowing down, taking some time for yourself, and letting others know you can use some support.

 

Tamara McClintock Greenberg, Psy.D., M.S., is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.

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