Bridging the Generation Gap in Family Caregiving

By Judy Santamaria MSPH

We often refer to the difficulties faced by the “sandwich generation” — those in their 40s and 50s who find themselves caring for elderly family members (usually parents) while they still have responsibility for children at home. Worrying about driving your elderly mom to the doctor can be especially stressful when you also feel the need to cook a healthy meal for your growing teen. While no one can diminish the stresses that a family caregiver feels when they are caring for both older and younger family members, we should also recognize the opportunities that can arise when multiple generations in a family share their lives.

Many studies have shown the benefits of intergenerational interactions not only for young people but also for seniors. Older adults who are involved in intergenerational activities feel happier than other older adults. 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 their ability to give back. For children and teens, interacting with older adults, such as grandparents, helps them understand and later accept the process of aging. It also strengthens emotional and social intelligence and helps kids acquire new skills and knowledge.

At the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, attendees at an adult day center in Queens have been participating in an intergenerational program with local troops of Girl and Boy Scouts. In this program, which started in 2006, scouts visit the seniors in the day center and do activities to keep the seniors cognitively and socially engaged, from staging an interactive talent show to working on crafts and community service projects to playing word games and other activities that reinforce cognition and social interaction. They also work together to create activity kits that are delivered to homebound seniors who can’t come to the center.

At home, this kind of positive interaction between grandparents and grandchildren is possible too, providing benefits for both and easing some of the burdens commonly faced by family caregivers. Keep in mind, though, that if the different generations in your family are not in the habit of interacting, it may take a little longer to get things started. Just remember to allow time for everyone to adjust their comfort levels. Here’s a seven-step plan for bridging the generation gap for family caregivers.