The sandwich generation

In addition to caring for their young children, many parents have taken on the responsibility of caring for their aging parents as well

Photo: © Yastremska

According to Statistics Canada, there are over two million caregivers in Canada, and the majority are women, aged 35 to 44. These caregivers are often caring for aging parents or grandparents while they’re also caring for young children.

This is a situation that Ottawa’s Sarah W. knows too well. Her aging mother, Connie, often needs assistance. Sarah, who asked that her last name not be used, also works full-time and has a husband and an 11-year-old daughter to care for.

“I’ve talked about watching my mother age with friends,” says Sarah. “And I do find it hard. She used to be so independent and vibrant and she’s still pretty active at 85 and living in her own home. But there are some things she still thinks she can do and can’t. I know it’s hard for her too.” Sarah says her mother can still feed and bathe herself but can’t cope with many of usual chores in the upkeep of a house. “Winter is especially difficult,” says Sarah. “My husband and I do some shoveling to keep the walkways clear and to get rid of ice. And we make sure her garbage is out on a weekly basis.” Her brother lives out of town, but visits every spring and fall to deal with putting out patio furniture out and garden hoses. “I recently got her signed up for a grocery service that delivers,” says Sarah. “And that has helped a lot, but I still have to do her grocery lists for her. She used to shop every day and now has to get into a new routine of doing it once a week.” Sarah knows her mother appreciates everything she does, but thinks her mom would be better off in a retirement home.

“I love my mother,” says Sarah. “So, it would be a relief knowing that she’s being fed and looked after. And it would be so much better if she could choose now, instead of me having to make the choice if something happens. It’s a dilemma.”

Connie knows that Sarah worries about her. “It’s kind of a role reversal, isn’t it? I used to worry about Sarah when she was little, now she is worried about me.” She knows that Sarah is thinking about her when she gets services in to help her. “We’re both going through adjustments,” says Connie. “I know Sarah is finding it difficult that I’m getting on and that I’m sometimes forgetful – it’s frustrating for me too.”  Connie also understands why Sarah would like her to make the decision about a retirement home. “I know at some point, I’ll have to move, but I don’t want to get stuck with a bunch of old people,” laughs Connie. “And for me right now, it’s about staying close to friends and my church family.”

Knowing when to think about a retirement home can be a dilemma for families. There are signs when a parent or grandparent is struggling. Rachel Borzecki, program director and principal consultant at Solva Senior Living is aware of those signs. “Having to finally admit that a parent isn’t doing well on their own can be devastating for a family,” says Borzecki. “Determining what help is needed can actually be empowering and allow people to stay in their home.” Borzecki sits down with the person and their family to figure out what the issues are. “Sometimes the aging parent is open to talking, sometimes not, but I can give them the tools to make changes.”

Borzecki says that often the warning signs of not being able to cope are obvious and sometimes easily dealt with. “One of the first things I look at in a home visit is accessibility,” says Borzecki, “and especially this time of year.” She looks at how well a person can get in and out of the house in winter and are they able to shovel their walkway. “If getting out of the house is the issue, often an easy fix is getting a reliable service to do snow removal.” Maintenance of the house is another clue that she looks at. Can they do things to keep the house running or the yard maintained? Borzecki says that this is often solved by getting a service to help with the outside work or the inside work. And often, family can pitch in. “Keep an eye open for how your parent(s) are coping with daily chores like dishes, laundry or vacuuming. Have they done laundry lately, are dishes stacked up in the kitchen?” says Borzecki. “And again, some of these are easy to solve with a housekeeping service.”

Harder to deal with is when a parent(s) is living in a multi-level house and they can’t access parts of the house. “I’ve had cases where the bedrooms were on the second floor and the bathroom was on the first floor and the individuals had mobility issues,” says Borzecki. “This can be a tough one to deal with and it’s not an easy fix.” When it’s just an issue of negotiating stairs, there are devices available that may solve the problem. Borzecki says asking about medications is important as well. “Make sure you talk to them about any medications they are taking and find out if they are having any problems.” She says to keep your eyes open for unopened pill packages, or bottles. Borzecki also says that if they become defensive, it might be a good idea to speak with their physician. “Not taking medications on time or properly can indicate cognitive issues,” says Borzecki “and that should be dealt with quickly.” Neglected personal hygiene and an empty fridge or cupboard can be an indication that there are underlying issues as well. “Often not taking care of one’s self, or not eating properly can indicate depression or cognitive decline and should be looked into,” she says.

Borzecki’s advice? “I know this can be a difficult decision for not only the parent, but for the family,” she says. “The best thing is to just be honest with each other and know that there are options available that in many cases can help people stay in their own homes or get the care and assistance they need in another setting.”

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Sheryl-Bennett Wilson is writing on behalf of CARP, a national, non-partisan volunteer organization. With over 300,000 members across the country, CARP advocates for better health care, improved financial security and protects the dignity of Canadians as they age. Anyone can join and members receive discounts on over 100 everyday products and services. Visit for more information. For CARP Ottawa, email