Members of the “Sandwich Generation” are often defined as people in their 40s and 50s who are caring not only for their own kids but also their aging parents. Those caregivers can experience a lot of pressure—yet these multi-generational relationships can also benefit everyone.
Susan Bosak of The Legacy Project – an independent research, education and social innovation group based in Toronto – writes that regular, close contact between seniors and children used to be the norm—and still is in many cultures. Grandparents provide a link to the family’s past and cultural traditions. They also have the time and patience to provide the attention children need to thrive.
That can lead to higher self-esteem in children, along with better emotional and social skills, better grades, and a healthier perspective about aging.
“By getting to know ‘real, live old people,’ children look beyond the ageist stereotypes,” Bosak writes. “They become more comfortable with aging, which is really something we all do from the moment we’re born.”
The group has also found that older adults who interact regularly with children are happier and healthier as well.
“Active, involved older adults with close intergenerational connections consistently report much less depression, better physical health and higher degrees of life satisfaction,” Bosak writes. “They tend to be happier with their present life and more hopeful for the future.”
So, how does this help the Sandwich Generation? Simply put: Grandparents and kids keep each other occupied and entertained, taking pressure off the primary caregiver.
Children of all ages can help older adults stay engaged. The Institute on Aging offers advice on how to teach kids age-appropriate ways to become a meaningful part of a senior’s life. Younger children up to age 10 are eager to show off their toys, talk about their day and play games. They do need to be taught, however, that older adults might have limitations.
“Explain to your kids that grandma or grandpa may not be able to run with them in the park all afternoon, or that they need frequent breaks,” the Institute recommends. “You may also have to tell them that they can’t do certain activities because their grandparents have conditions like arthritis. Make sure they know to speak loudly and clearly if the older adult has some hearing loss. They may also need to describe things instead of showing them due to the older adult’s low vision.”
Children ages 11 and up could help older relatives navigate new technology and visit virtually with a grandparent living elsewhere. This age group also could volunteer at assisted living centers to learn from residents. And if a relative lives in a care home, the whole family can schedule regular visits and outings together.
Multi-generational living offers many more opportunities for children and older adults to interact. While less common in the United States than elsewhere, it’s become more popular over the last decade. Generations United – a nonprofit that “strengthens practices and policies to benefit all generations” – reports that one in four Americans lives in a multigenerational household—more than 66 million adults.
Some positive outcomes for everyone in the household include:
- Better family relationships
- Easier caregiving opportunities
- Financial savings
- Improved mental and/or physical health
- The ability to continue school or enroll in job training
Not all families can live together in multigenerational homes, of course, but some senior care centers are taking an innovative approach by opening child day cares in the same facility, bringing older adults and preschool children together on a regular basis.
And those intergenerational care centers promote sensitivity and empathy on both ends of the generation spectrum, along with other benefits, writes Ashley McGuire for the Institute for Family Studies:
“Young children who participated in intergenerational care had more advanced motor and cognitive skills, higher developmental scores, and more advanced social and emotional competencies than their nonintergenerational peers, to name a few,” she writes. “And older adult participants reported lower levels of loneliness, reduced agitation, and improved health, among other findings.”
The takeaway? Kids and senior citizens are a great match. Older adults can teach kids classic skills such as how to crochet or build a birdhouse. Kids can teach grandparents new concepts such as how to surf the web and the meaning of words like “yeet.” They also can go outside and enjoy a stroll through the neighborhood together—giving the Sandwich Generation a much-needed break from their busy day.