We often refer to the difficulties faced by the “sandwich generation” caregivers—those in their 40s and 50s who find themselves caring for elderly family members while they still have children at home. Worrying about driving your elderly mom to the doctor can be especially stressful when you also need to cook a healthy meal for your growing teen. But sandwiched caregivers, take heart: While no one can diminish the stresses you face in caring for both older and younger family members, this may be an opportunity for multiple generations in a family to share their lives.
Many studies have shown the benefits of intergenerational interactions. Relationships with younger people can give seniors a sense of purpose, especially since they’re in the period of life where many gain satisfaction from giving back. Interacting with older adults, such as grandparents, helps teens and children understand and later accept the process of aging. It also strengthens kids’ emotional intelligence and helps them acquire new skills.
Positive interactions between grandparents and grandchildren can also ease some of the burdens faced by family caregivers. For example, if your family is engaged with each other, you may be able to find some precious time to run errands, take a walk, or make some phone calls.
So what are some ways you as a family caregiver can foster intergenerational relationships?
- Explain separately to both your kids and your parents the benefits of getting them to spend more time together, and outline your goals. Chances are your parent will like the idea but may be wary that it will work. Younger children, luckily, are usually very receptive to spending more time with a grandparent or a great-aunt or -uncle. If your child is a teen, he or she may resist, fearing they won’t have anything in common. Assure them there will be no pressure to interact, but instead plan activities they can do together.
- Think about things the two generations can do together that will be easy for both. Planning ahead will ease their interactions and give you a chance to plan for some time to yourself.
- Recognize limitations. If an elderly person has physical disabilities, suggest activities such as doing puzzles, playing board games, or preparing a meal or dessert. Teens may be interested in history and may enjoy making a family tree, writing a family cookbook, or making a video of the family member’s life. Gardening, in which a senior family member directs the activities of the younger person, can help them find a common ground. Finally, reading aloud to an elder can improve a child’s vocabulary and be very entertaining for an aging relative.
- If your parent has dementia, it may be harder for your child to interact, and you shouldn’t depend on a young person to keep an elder safe. But there are still things they can do together, such as looking at old photos, singing songs, or playing with a pet—if you don’t have your own, a visit from a neighbor’s pet can be very uplifting.
- Remember that a youngster can also have a lot to share. Computer skills, for example, come easily to many kids, and the things they can teach—such as how to store and look at photos, how to do Internet searches, and how to use email—can open up a whole new life for a senior.
As you embark on this journey, remember that every intergenerational relationship will be unique. Don’t set your initial expectations too high, and be willing to modify your goals as you see what works and what doesn’t. These relationships can provide many benefits to both seniors and young people and can give you, the family caregiver, some greatly needed peace of mind—even joy—as you watch the relationship develop and grow.