“I carry my dad’s emotions on my shoulders” says woman part of the growing ‘sandwich generation’
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Carers can often be invisible - they look after members of their family and we know little about it. Among their numbers are 1.3 million people still caring for children while also looking after older family members. We found out more and hear one East Anglian woman’s story.
A report issued this month shows there is an emerging generation of “sandwich carers”.
They are people who, with increased life expectancy and deciding to have children at an older age, now have the twin responsibility of caring for sick, disabled or elderly relatives, as well as their own children. Despite the fact there are more than 1.3 million of them, they are some of the most stressed and least acknowledged people in the UK population.
Among them is Sue (not her real name) who works in the care sector in East Anglia, juggling work alongside the demands of her home life, and a parent who has physical and emotional problems.
Sue had her children in her 30s and is now in her 40s with an oldest child with ADHD, who requires more attention than many young people his age. His condition means Sue has to look out for him all the time.
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“He is constantly on report at school. The school is supportive but he often leaves his bag in a lesson.
“He needs constant prompting, reminding and focusing. He is a real character - he just needs more support than the average 14-year-old. He’s almost a full time job,” smiles Sue.
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At the same time: “My dad has multiple sclerosis and is paralysed from the waist down. He was living with my step-mum but she has advanced Alzheimer’s and is now in a home. So now dad is living on his own and has to try and manage his emotions as he misses my step-mum badly.
“He has a care package and so carers go in to help him and members of the family take it in turns to go and see him, I go Mondays and Fridays.”
“I phone him every night and I have reduced my hours at work so that I can do his shopping on Friday.”
The demands on Sue’s time have taken their toll. “It’s had a huge impact on me. I work Monday to Thursday and I don’t have a lunch break so that I can pick the children up from school.”
“It affects myself and my husband. He is an absolute diamond but our relationship does get put on the backburner because of the demands on my time.
“It has also had an impact on my mental health. With my step-mum going into care I have to support my dad emotionally. This was the first Christmas they have been apart in more than 25 years. He was taken into hospital and then given respite care, during which time he was on suicide watch because he was so distraught.
“I carry that emotion on my shoulders.
“It affects everybody. It has a ripple effect on everyone in the family.”
For Sue, though, it is as much about love as duty. “I would do anything for my dad - it’s that emotional side of things... I can help him put his coat on and get ready to go out but I can’t fix it for him and it impacts on my mood at home.”
Her dad, she says, seems to have lost his confidence and, as a result, Sue is also completing his paperwork. “He was always so independent until recently.”
Sue clearly adores her father and her family but her life seems tinged with sadness. That isn’t to say she doesn’t laugh - she does and she says a sense of humour can be a great reviver. She also recognises her husband’s role and appreciates him being there for her.
“I don’t tell my husband he is a brick, but he is.
“I don’t want to let anyone down... I try to be superhuman, I suppose.”
She wakes up in the night and finds it difficult to get back to sleep. “My head is full of what I have to do tomorrow.”
Remarkably, Sue speaks without self-pity. The tears, when they come, are mine.
She is keen to say that she is very fortunate to have an understanding employer, being conscious that some workplaces would not be as flexible and accommodating.
As one of the sandwich generation, Sue’s story is replicated around the country. She is one of an increasing number of people who will be in the same position in coming years.
Hugh Stickland, head of strategy and engagement at ONS said: “This affects more women than men, with women more likely to feel restricted in how much they can work alongside looking after older, sick or disabled relatives and children. The wellbeing of sandwich carers is varied, with parents who spend less than five hours a week looking after older, sick or disabled relatives seeing slightly higher health and life satisfaction compared with the general population. However, those who spend more time caring show lower levels of health and life satisfaction, and are more likely to experience symptoms of depression or anxiety.”