The pressure isn't just on you when you're part of the Sandwich Generation—squeezed between the demands of caring for children and aging parents at the same time —it also has an impact on your kids.
Maybe you have less time to take them to band practice and soccer games. You may have to miss a school play performance because the elder relative can't be left at home alone. Peer relationships can also change when a relative who might display odd behaviors or has a severe physical illness becomes part of the household, says Maria Wellisch, vice president of corporate education at mmLearn.org, the web-based caregiver training program of Morningside Ministries in San Antonio.
“If Grandma is in a bed in the middle of the living room, sometimes that is not conducive to having your best friends over," says Wellisch, a registered nurse who has worked in long-term care as well as caring for her own mother, “so I think there can be a little more isolation."
Good communication can be the cure for the loneliness, confusion and even resentment your kids may experience when the family dynamics are disrupted by the caregiving needs of an elder relative. Wellisch offers three tips for discussing the issue with them and helping them feel more at ease.
Prepare them for the changes to come. Children are bound to have questions about their relative's illness and how it will affect their day-to-day lives. They also can sense any anxiety you may be feeling about the situation, even when you're trying to protect them by hiding your concerns.
Wellisch advocates open and honest dialogue. Before Grandpa or Grandma moves in, talk to your kids about some of the changes that are about to take place in the family routine. Invite them to express their concerns and ask questions.
To help explain dementia to a young child, Wellisch suggests sharing an age-appropriate book on the subject, such as Maria Shriver's What's Happening to Grandpa?, or Grandpa Forgot My Name by Nancy Grunewald. (Check our our post on other great caregiving books here!) She recommends reading the book yourself first so you can be sure it's a good fit for your child and have a better discussion when the two of you read it together.
“Books open up the world in a way that makes you feel you are not all alone, that there are other children going through this as well," Wellisch says.
Let them help out. While children may sometimes resent losing some of your attention because of your caregiving responsibilities, they often are eager to pitch in and help with the care. Let a young child brush Grandma's hair or rub her hands. That physical touch can be calming for the elderly person and help your child feel more connected to her, Wellisch explains.
Pull out some old photo albums and let Mom or Dad and the kids look at them together to perhaps spark some memories and storytelling. Have the kids read to their elder relative--an activity Wellisch says can be enjoyed even into the later stages of dementia.
When the kids do chores like taking out the garbage or folding the towels, tell them how important that help is to making the household run smoothly.
Tap into their tech savviness. Your kids may be the most computer literate members of the household, so put their expertise to use. Ask them to help find online sources of information about caregiving. Encourage them to teach Grandma or Grandpa to use a tablet to play brain games, connect with out-of-town family or build a photo album. Social connections remain an important part of life, at any age.