The so-called sandwich generation form the backbone of the active Hungarian population. This name has been given to today’s roughly 35-55 year olds, because they are pressed by expectations from many sides. The responsibilities of raising children, caring for ageing parents and organizing time off work to do so can be emotionally, mentally and physically demanding. The responsibility and interminable ’to do’ list often weighs on the shoulders of this middle, hence ’sandwich’ generation, not as a joyful task, but as a constant whirlwind of stress, physical and mental strain. For many this comes at a time when they may be coping with their own mid-life crisis, while also needing to pay increasing attention to self-care for which there is no longer sufficient time or energy.
What is the nature of Gen X’s hardship?
In their daily lives, the 35-55 age group has to cope with the most daily tasks.
Members of the sandwich generation can find themselves in a difficult financial situation, having to support children who are becoming independent later in life, as well as parents who may need extra help or care. As the cost of providing professional help and educating children is also a significant financial burden, there is a need to redirect financial resources, and any cuts most often affect recreational activities - the very thing that could provide recharging and relaxation.
With recreation and self-care most often neglected, there may be a knock-on effect on the relationship with their partner, which becomes starved of time and energy. Concentration is restricted to taking care of compulsory tasks and the logistics of day-to-day life. The tension brought on by chronic stress is also a complicating factor in creating romance and intimacy.
Members of the sandwich generation are usually of working age, so alongside helping, supporting and caring for their children and parents, they also have to attend to their daily working lives. Striking a work-life balance is therefore a major challenge, as caring for children and/or parents is a 'second job' after work. This can mean that they get stuck on the career ladder, unable to progress in their working lives as their energy is dissipated by the many tasks at hand.
Over time, chronic stress from the constant rush and the plethora of tasks will affect mental health as well as physical well-being. It is common for members of the sandwich generation to neglect self-care first, owing to their increased workload. This means that they miss out on exercise, cooking healthy meals, or even time for spiritual recharging and leisure. All of this can be a breeding ground for health problems. A high percentage of the sandwich generation report chronic stress and associated sleep problems. In the population as a whole, women tend to be more affected because they have a greater role in the household and in elderly care, and therefore more responsibilities.
What about burnout?
Many people feel that they do not have enough time to do anything, that they can only complete tasks in a sloppy way, that they never reach the end of a task, and that they have no time for themselves and their families. It can seem that there are simply more tasks than there are hours in the day. Most of us do our best to meet our own or the perceived expectations of those around us, all the while dissipating our own energy.
Many minor physical complaints that are thought to be commonplace can be linked to the tensions that live within us. For example, we often do not recognize that headaches, stomachaches or indigestion are actually a body's cry for help, often caused by irregular, hurried mealtimes or a lack of a regular routine. However, if we ignore these signs, we may end up with illnesses that are more serious in the long term.
Because of prolonged stress, in addition to mild anxiety, sleep disturbances or even depression can develop. However, most people only notice the warning signs when they experience more severe symptoms that prevent them from carrying out their daily tasks.
The following symptoms may be a warning sign:
- constant worry and anxiety, feelings of helplessness, exhaustion, fatigue;
- frustration, impatience, irritability with the immediate environment;
- sleep disturbance: difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep;
- mood swings: seemingly unjustified crying, loss of joy;
- difficulty concentrating;
- sudden weight loss or gain.
It pays to be proactive to prevent further trouble, so however pressing our commitments; we must make time for ourselves. After all, we can only help others - our children, our parents - if we ourselves are well.
What stress management advice works? What should we do for our own well-being?
The ageing of societies means that the struggles of the sandwich generation will not disappear, but awareness can mitigate the harmful effects of the problems that arise.
Creating the right environment for self-care is essential. Health is one of our greatest assets, hence looking out for our own emotional and physical wellbeing is essential. This includes getting enough quality sleep, eating a healthy, whole-food diet - even fast food restaurants have healthier options - and exercising, which is something we should make time for at least 20-30 minutes a day, even if it means getting off public transport a few stops early and travelling a short distance on foot. All of this can make a big difference to our overall physical and mental well-being.
This basic self-care is essential if we are to be able to carry out our tasks long-term. Bear in mind that, if we are completely exhausted, we will not be able to support our families as we would like to!
Unfortunately, we often find it hard to see or recognize our own limitations. Nevertheless, everyone has their own limits, and before reaching or pushing these it is worth asking for help by delegating certain tasks and involving family members in caring work as it is important not to attempt everything single-handedly and all at once.
When we are having difficulties coping with stress, different stress management techniques can be learned with the help of professionals. A timely psychiatric consultation can help to uncover and understand the root of the problems and help to find an individual, tailored therapeutic path to regain and maintain life balance.
We must say NO if we have to, take a break, and recognize our limits! Difficult situations call for family solidarity, so ask for help from friends and relatives. If we still feel that the methods listed above have not worked, our coping skills are exhausted, or that the negative symptoms are overwhelming or more widespread, we owe it to ourselves to seek professional help.