Sandwich caregivers balance dual responsibilities


By Alicia Chang


The sun was barely up when Evelyn Volk, bleary-eyed with toothbrush in hand, tossed a pile of clothes into the washing machine, the first of several loads of the day. She glanced at the wall clock that was deliberately set 10 minutes fast. Time to rustle her two teenage kids out of bed and check on her elderly mother, who suffers from dementia.

The night before, Volk scribbled a checklist of chores to do — exercise, clean, supermarket run, personal errands — well aware that competing demands from her children and mother would make it nearly impossible to stick according to plan. Still, she soldiers on.

“On a good day, I feel like Superwoman,” she said on a recent morning.

These bookend family responsibilities land Volk squarely in the “sandwich generation” — pressed between dual roles of supporting aging parents while rearing children.

About 66 million Americans take care of a parent, spouse, relative or other loved one. Roughly a third also are raising children, according to the nonprofit National Alliance for Caregiving.

With women having children later in life and the elderly living longer, aging and family experts say more people could be pulled into double-duty caregiving.

“This is an issue that’s not going to go away,” said Sandra Timmermann, executive director of the MetLife Mature Market Institute, which conducts aging research.

Supporting a loved one, particularly someone with a mind-robbing illness like Alzheimer’s or other dementia, can be stressful. Caregivers often have to help their once-independent and alert parents eat, bathe, dress and deal with the unexpected such as a fall injury. Add parenting duties and it can be overwhelming.

“They’re being pulled in two different directions,” Timmermann said. “It’s caregiving times two.”

The constant juggling often leads to feelings of inadequacy.

“They’re struggling to find a balance,” said Gail Hunt, who heads the caregiving alliance. “They feel guilty that they’re not doing enough no matter how much they do.”

Peter Rogerson, who studies population changes at the University at Buffalo, said some sandwich caregivers may find themselves part of the “stretched” generation, continuing to provide care for their parents even when they become empty-nesters.

Since baby boomers had fewer children than their parents, the next generation may feel more of a pinch with fewer siblings to share the burden, Rogerson said.

On a typical day, Volk, 52, rushes to drop off her kids before the school bell rings and then gets her 84-year-old mother, Maria, ready. Four times a week, her mother attends an adult day care center not far from their San Fernando Valley home. Monday is usually the most hectic day because her mother stays home and Volk plays the role of parent.

Volk’s morning was going smoothly until she returned home and discovered her mother, who suffers from incontinence, had an accident. She promptly bathed her and cleaned up the mess. Every time it happens, Volk feels a tinge of sadness. Her mother, born in the Dominican Republic, used to be a strong, independent woman. After suffering a series of tiny strokes, she was never the same.

When her mother started showing signs of dementia and paranoia a decade ago, Volk decided to move her in with her film editor husband, children, two cats, dog and parakeet. She used to help around the house, preparing meals for the family even as she became increasingly forgetful. As her health declined, she stopped cooking and forgot how to do simple things like how to turn on the shower or run the washer and dryer. Sometimes she would not recognize her own house.

The burden fell on Volk, who felt the tug between nurturing her mother and tending to her kids. Volk still feels guilty that she was never a Little League mom. There was no time for that when the kids were growing up. This past summer, she broke some bad news: There was no family camping trip because Grandma could not be left alone.

Some days are so frenzied that Volk finds herself passing out in the middle of the day. There are some mornings when Volk, anticipating the day ahead, doesn’t want to get out of bed. It’s sometimes hard for Volk to focus because she gets easily sidetracked.

“Everything takes so much out of me. I don’t like those days,” she said.

The weekend before her mother’s accident, Volk took time out to connect with other caregivers who gathered at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles. It was a rare day off for Volk and her fellow caregivers. The group took a 10-second moment of silence for those who could not escape their responsibilities.

“We don’t want anyone to feel alone,” said Shawn Herz of the Los Angeles Caregiver Resource Center, which organized the meeting.

Volk caught up with several sandwich caregivers who were exercising their stress away. In between doing the Twist and boogying to Rock Around the Clock and Hokey Pokey, they traded stories about their kids and coping tips.

Though Volk is the primary caregiver for her mother, she recently started giving her 15-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter small chores to do. While she takes her daughter to acting classes every Thursday night, her son feeds his grandmother and helps her remove her dentures. Whenever Volk is busy, her daughter steps up.

The family spent Thanksgiving at her in-laws’ vacation house in Lake Arrowhead, a mountain resort destination east of Los Angeles. Volk dropped her mother off with her brother for a few days. She caught up on sleep and spent time with the family, hiking and shopping.

Then it was back to reality. For some, caregiving lasts a finite amount of time. For others like Volk, she has a duty as long as her mother is alive and as long as her kids are at home.

“This is my lot in life,” she said. “Sometimes I wonder, ‘How long will this last?’ ”

National Alliance for Caregiving:; Fifty Plus Caregivers: