“Sandwich Generation” caregivers walk a fine line with their own mental health.
She had a special set of rules about crying — when and where she could let her emotions flow. Barbara of West Bloomfield, a wife, mother and member of what’s known as the Sandwich Generation, agreed to share her story with the Detroit Jewish News but asked that we use only her first name.
The Sandwich Generation refers to people, typically in their 30s or 40s, who find themselves caring for children and an aging parent at the same time. In Barbara’s case, her three children were in elementary and middle school (5, 7 and 10 at the time) when her 72-year-old mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
“I could only cry in the car driving alone or in the shower or if I was somewhere by myself,” she says. “The only way I could cope was to compartmentalize.”
During the years that followed, Barbara struggled to take on many roles. She spent her days and nights caring for various family members and tried to look after her own physical and emotional well-being as best she could.
“I felt like I was split into three people,” she recalls. “I was the mother who didn’t want to miss out on the joy of being a mom; I was the child who wanted to do everything I could for my own mom; and I was the person trying to help my dad.”
Eventually, her mother required round-the-clock care before Alzheimer’s claimed her life. Barbara and her sisters shared responsibilities and helped each other out. She sought spiritual guidance through Judaism, praying and reading many books. She also took yoga classes to relieve the stress but found it difficult to talk with others because, she says, “people just didn’t understand.”
“I didn’t seek therapy at the time,” she says. “Looking back, I probably should have. It was hard to talk to anyone.”
Lori Kanat Edelson, owner, director and a therapist at the Birmingham Maple Clinic on Big Beaver Road in Troy, says caregiver depression is a “major mental health crisis” and something the clinic sees all the time.
“Women experience depression at a higher rate than men,” Edelson says. “That doesn’t mean every caregiver is going to become depressed, just that caregivers often sacrifice their own physical and emotional needs and that often catches up to them.”
According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, a California-based nonprofit, an estimated 44 million Americans ages 18 and older serve as caregivers, and as many as 40 to 70 percent of caregivers are estimated to have clinically significant symptoms of depression.
Edelson says symptoms to watch for include changes in eating habits resulting in unwanted weight loss or gain, too much sleep or not enough sleep, fatigue, loss of interest in people or activities, becoming easily agitated and feeling that nothing you do is good enough. More extreme symptoms include excessive drug or alcohol use; addictive, compulsive behaviors; and thoughts of death or suicide or attempting suicide.
She says self-help techniques are often effective, like using self-talk to address negative thoughts, replacing negative thoughts with positive thoughts and participating in activities just for fun. Keeping a journal and writing down thoughts and feelings can also be helpful. If self-help techniques don’t work and symptoms persist, Edelson says it’s important to consult a professional.
“There’s also a lot of joy and benefit and positive energy that come from being a caregiver,” she adds. “People often find the role very rewarding. They feel like they were cared for and loved by their parents when they were young, and it feels good to give something back. It’s a multigenerational sense of belonging and commitment and dedication that is really very beautiful as long as you don’t burn out.”
Lynn Breuer works with ElderCare Solutions of Michigan, a division of Jewish Family Service of Metro Detroit, to help families reduce the likelihood of a crisis.
“The vast majority of those who reach out to us are Sandwich Generation children,” she says. “We do assessments and arm families with strategies and resources. It’s an issue we deal with every day and it’s a real thing. I lived it personally with my parents — I’m living it right now with my mother-in-law — it’s something everybody experiences if you’re lucky enough to live a long time.”
Jodi Lennox, 41, of Clarkston began therapy after her 67-year-old mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Jodi has a 4-year-old daughter, works part-time as a physician assistant and helps manage a horse farm. She says the emotions were overwhelming.
“I did not know how to be a mom and a daughter,” she explains. “As a daughter, I wanted to be there with my mom and help with every need, but I also have a daughter who needs me.”
Jodi says through her therapist at Edelson’s clinic she’s learned to focus on being 100 percent present when she’s with her daughter. She puts her cell phone down and makes rituals like bath time and bedtime special times for them to talk. She also learned to meditate. She says her husband, Rob, helps when she can’t be there and is a lifesaver.
“My advice? When people offer to help, accept it,” she says. “Rely on friends and family. Don’t try to do it all.”
Reach Jewish Family Service at (248) 592-2313 or visit jfsdetroit.org; or visit
birminghammaple.com or call (248) 646-6659.
JFS Receives Grants
Jewish Family Service has received grants from DMC Foundation and United Way for Southeastern Michigan that will allow the agency to provide support in the areas of chronic care management and basic needs, respectively.
The $70,000 from DMC Foundation will allow JFS to address chronic care management barriers in underserved communities. This program will focus on improving the quality of life of vulnerable older adults through chronic disease management services while creating a bilingual (Russian/English) network of support and community resources. By providing bilingual chronic care management, these older adults, who may have a variety of cognitive, behavioral, language and cultural barriers, can learn how to manage their conditions.
Funding from United Way for Southeastern Michigan will help JFS continue to serve the community with social workers who can assist people in accessing a variety of public and agency resources to meet basic needs such as food, shelter, medical care, utilities and more, as well as with mental health services for those without insurance coverage.