Most women today grew up being taught they could have it all and do it all. And, for the most part, it’s true. But few of us were told that no one can do it all alone. Unfortunately, trying to go it alone is precisely what many women of the so-called “sandwich generation,” those who find themselves caring both for their own young children and for their aging parents, find themselves doing.
The simple fact is that the bulk of family caregiving still falls disproportionately on the shoulders of women. And that’s too heavy a burden for anyone to carry alone.
The Mothering Gene
There’s no question that tremendous progress has been made in recent decades in the fight for equal rights for women. However, as far as we’ve come in the quest for gender equality, some traditions die hard. And a few seem to refuse to die at all.
Foremost among those is the seemingly age-old view that women are the principal caregivers in the home. The presumption, of course, is that women are intrinsically tenderer, more nurturing, and more compassionate. And when someone requires care, it’s usually the women of the house we look to first.
But it’s not just children who instinctively reach for mom when they’re in need. Studies show that aging parents are more likely to turn to daughters over sons when they’re sick or in need of care. Additionally, the research indicates that not only are more daughters caring for their children than are sons, but they’re also spending significantly more hours per week in unpaid caregiving. This has a tremendous impact on caregivers’ physical, emotional, and financial health.
New treatments are evolving every day to delay the onset or progression of Alzheimer’s and other dementias, including the use of supplements and novel pharmaceutical therapies. This gives tremendous hope for the future of eldercare. In the present, however, there are precious few options for the care of those with advanced cognitive impairments, leaving millions of family caregivers to step into the gap.
The Cost of Caring
Because the responsibility of caring for young children and aging parents falls disproportionately on women, working women are finding it increasingly difficult to remain in the workforce, let alone advance in their careers. The toll that the burden of caregiving is taking on women’s careers is strikingly apparent when one considers how rapidly women are leaving the workforce.
For example, the number of women in the paid civilian workforce in the US has been steadily declining in recent years, with women with young children exhibiting lower levels of labor participation than women with older or no children. And because women in the sandwich generation are also typically in their prime earning years, having to leave the workforce or significantly reduce their working hours can have long-lasting financial repercussions. In fact, it’s estimated that unpaid family caregivers lose an average of $300,000 in income throughout a lifetime.
Sick at Heart
Let’s face it, being a caregiver is a true labor of love. But the toll of caring can extend far beyond the financial. Regardless of age, family caregivers are at significant risk of physical and mental health issues, from heart disease and stroke to depression and anxiety.
Unfortunately, despite the known health risks associated with caregiving, women often face significant challenges in receiving the support they need. The healthcare system in itself, for example, is still highly prone to gender bias, putting women at heightened risk of misdiagnosis or missed diagnoses. Signs of a heart attack in women, for instance, frequently go undetected, with physicians often attributing women’s complaints to emotional factors, such as stress, panic, or anxiety. When misdiagnoses and missed diagnoses occur, women may have little recourse but to sue, particularly when negligence is to blame. Gender biases, for example, may well lead to inadvertent malpractice for which clinicians are legally liable.
What’s To Be Done
When you’re a caregiver, you may feel as if giving everything you have, all your strength, energy, and time, to your loved ones, is an act of caring, a sign of your love. But the reality is that if you’re not taking care of yourself, you’re going to be hurting both yourself and the ones you care for in the long run. That’s because no one can do it all — at least not for very long.
Finding the strength to enlist support is, in the end, the most loving thing you can do both for yourself and for the ones you care for.
It’s also imperative to build self-care into your daily life. Ensure you’re getting consistent, quality sleep and daily exercise. Make sure you’re regularly connecting with friends, even if you have to do so while socially distancing. And don’t hesitate to reach out for emotional and mental health support when you need it. Joining an online support group for caregivers or seeking care from a family counselor or psychotherapist can help you cope with the stresses of caregiving.
Caregiving is perhaps the most loving, but also the most challenging, responsibility a person can take on. And it’s a responsibility that falls disproportionately on women of the sandwich generation. But it doesn’t have to be that way and, indeed, it should not. In fact, the most loving and caring thing you can do for the people you care for is to take care of the one who cares for them.
Guest Author Bio
Jori Hamilton is a writer and journalist from the Pacific Northwest who covers social justice issues, healthcare, and politics. You can follow her work on twitter @HamiltonJori, and through her portfolio at Writer Jori Hamilton.