Britain’s ‘sandwich’ generation are burning out: How to cope when ageing parents and children need you most

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Article and images from the Telegraph, published on

Monday to Friday, Grace gets up at 6am to prepare a packed lunch for her two sons (aged 10 and eight); she often makes extra to deliver to her 68-year-old father-in-law, who lives alone and rarely cooks. She might squeeze in a bit of housework before the boys wake up, then she’ll walk them to their local school. Three days a week she works part-time in an accountants’ office, and when she’s not doing that, she visits her mum who had a sudden stroke a few months ago and now feels vulnerable. She’ll usually do her mum’s ironing and weekly food shop; sometimes she’ll make a dent in the omnipresent pile of paperwork. 

Grace also recently took over the responsibility of caring for her grandmother, Stella, who is 85 and extremely frail. Grace does all her laundry, cleans her flat and provides most meals. Whenever there is a spare hour, she might take Stella out for a short walk or drive her to a local café, just so she can interact with a few new faces. Then it’s off to collect her boys from school, prepare their tea, help them with homework and, every Tuesday and Thursday, jump back in the car to drop them at football training and an art class.

 Her weekends are slightly less packed. But only just. If she doesn’t fall asleep on the sofa, she’ll watch a bit of TV with her husband Craig, who works long hours as an engineer. Most days Grace is exhausted but, she says, “If I didn’t take all this on, who else would do it? My family need me, and I have to be there for them.”

If we were to slap a label on Grace (other than “angel”), it would be “a multi-generational caregiver”. You’ve probably heard of the sandwich generation – those looking after their own children and elderly relatives; now we’ve also got the club sandwich generation, which goes that bit further with three levels of responsibility – supporting adult children, older parents and perhaps grandchildren. Plus, because women are having children later (age 30.7 in 2020) and the elderly are living longer, the sandwich carer numbers are increasing.

Like many situations in the past couple of years, the pandemic has added to the burden. Record numbers of young adults (3.5 million in the first half of 2020) moved back into the family home to garner more support as they were furloughed or fleeing university. Add the extra needs of the isolated elderly, and there you have a bubbling pot of increased anxiety, intense commitment, relationship tension and financial strain. Carers UK, whose aim is “to make life better for carers”, says the numbers of carers grew enormously at the start of the pandemic with a rise of 4.5 million people new to caring and 2.8 million juggling work and care. According to their survey, Caring Behind Closed Doors, 81 per cent of current carers had also upped their usual workload.

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