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How the Pandemic Is Affecting the Sandwich Generation

If you're caught between older parents and millennial kids, here are ways to cope


Part of the The Coronavirus Outbreak: What You Need to Know Special Report

I am anxious about my 80-year-old father with regards to COVID-19. He has lung cancer and emphysema. He receives immunotherapy injections monthly. And he resides in New York State, the current epicenter of the pandemic in the United States. To summarize, he has many of the risk factors associated with serious complications from the coronavirus.

But when I called to check on him this week, his biggest concern was that his bridge club (that typically hosts more than 50 older adults in one room) had been cancelled. He then went on to tell me how long the lines were when he went to the grocery store at 11 a.m. (a peak time) to pick up milk. At the end of our conversation, he told me he was on his way to play cards with a few friends at someone’s home.

In a reversal of roles, I began to scold him and explain why his actions were dangerous. I half-jokingly said that I was going to have to ground him for his own good.

“Talking about the virus can be incredibly stressful for people of all ages.”

I am not alone in my frustrations. Anna Jacoby, a writer from Washington D.C., says, “My mother is in the prime high-risk age category and has preexisting respiratory issues. She scoffs at me when I tell her to ask my sister or me to run errands for her. The greatest irony is that she is an epidemiologist with over twenty years of work in public health on her resumé.”

Many people are very worried about the COVID-19 pandemic and have altered their daily lives accordingly. But some are still not overly concerned, especially those over 70 (and considered high risk for complications) and those under 25. For those of us in the “sandwich” generation, who have older parents and adult children, this situation can be very worrisome.

Why Older Adults May Not Be Worried

Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at the New York-Presbyterian/Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, says, “People in their seventies and older have already been through a lot in their lives and survived. They have most likely already confronted their own mortality. They have lived most of their lives and maybe outlived many of their peers, so there isn’t the same fear that younger people with more life to live are experiencing.”

Older adults may be unwilling to change their routines and forgo activities because it’s simply not worth it to them.

Saltz explains. “They also don’t want to live a day-to-day life that is meaningless and miserable.” They may choose to take their chances and continue doing what they like to do for as long as they can.”

Some Younger Adults Don’t Feel Fearful

Now that many states have issued stay-at-home advisories, large gatherings in public places are less of an issue than at the beginning of the pandemic. Still, young adults may want to get together with groups of friends at each other’s homes or at the park. They may feel their parents are overreacting when they tell them these activities are dangerous.

Caroline Leaf, a neuroscientist, mental health expert and author, says, “Young people generally take more risks and are often told to have fun while they are still young. This may be why in the current situation, some are ignoring public warnings about the danger.”

Most young people do not feel they are in danger of getting seriously ill because they do not fall into the high-risk group.

“In general, young adults hold on to an adolescent sense of invincibility,” explains Saltz, “They also use denial, a primitive defense mechanism. They deny the reality of the situation to dispel their anxiety.”

They may also be frustrated by the restrictions being imposed to “flatten the curve” of the virus and how this is impacting them personally, both socially and economically. Saltz says, “We live in a highly individualized culture. We think about ourselves a lot and not the greater good,” she notes.

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What Can the Sandwich Generation Do?

Those of us in the sandwich generation are worried in every direction. We are worried about our parents, our adult children and ourselves. So, what can we do?

4 Ways to Help Our Parents

Explain the COVID-19 risks. “Talking about the virus can also be incredibly stressful for people of all ages. One way to cope is to ignore it,” says Leaf. Parents may be ignoring the situation, or they may not fully understand that their daily actions (going to the grocery at peak hours or playing cards in a close environment where everyone is touching the same cards) put them at risk of catching COVID-19.

Suggest alternative errands. Help older adults set up food and pharmacy deliveries so they don’t need to go out. If they do need groceries, remind them that many stores have special hours just for them.

Be cognizant of their mental health. “Depression and loneliness are prevalent in the older population,” says Saltz. Help find creative ways to keep them feeling engaged and social with family and friends. For example, teach them how to play bridge online with a computer opponent. Encourage grandkids to call or video chat with their grandparents more frequently, so the grandparents feel less alone.

Accept their actions. After explaining concerns and offering alternatives, if they still choose not to listen and to engage in riskier activities, there is nothing else to do. They are adults and have the right to live their lives as they see fit.

4 Ways to Help Young-Adult Children

Explain the COVID-19 risks to young adults. While it is true that the disease hits older adults harder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of the most recent update on March 18, 40% of coronavirus-related hospitalizations in the U.S. have occurred in patients younger than 54. And while young adults may not be at high risk for complications, other people could potentially get very ill or die.

Take the advice airlines tell passengers: Put on your face mask first before you tend to others.

Help your kids understand how their small actions can have a significant impact on the spread of the virus. Leaf says, “Ask them to imagine what it would be like if someone they loved came down with the virus or if they themselves got it. Or to remember how they felt when someone they love was very sick. Imagination and visualization are powerful tools to develop empathy and understanding.

Be empathetic to them. Don’t underestimate their losses caused by the situation. My daughter had to come home from her senior year of college and her commencement has been cancelled. Many young adults are worried about job security or have been forced to sequester in their childhood homes. They have a right to be frustrated.

Suggest they use social media as a way to connect with friends. Facebook and Zoom (video conferencing) allow for socialization while practicing social distance. Many people have gotten creative having happy hours, movie viewings and book clubs using this kind of technology.

Accept the actions of our young adult children, with exceptions. Young-adult children are legal adults; if they choose to ignore social distancing, there is nothing parents can do. The only exception is if they live with their parents. Even if they don’t get seriously ill, they can be vectors of transmission to others in the home. People that live together are responsible to one another.

2 Ways to Help Yourself

Take the advice airlines tell passengers: Put on your face mask first before you tend to others.

Eat healthy, exercise, stay hydrated and try to get a good night’s sleep. They’ll all help you be your strongest.

Remember that stress lowers immunity. Do what you can to lower your stress levels in these chaotic times. Read a book, do yoga or meditation, take a break from watching the news and go out for fresh air daily (but stay at least six feet away from others).

By Randi Mazzella
Randi Mazzella is a freelance writer specializing in a wide range of topics from parenting to pop culture to life after 50. She is a mother of three and lives in New Jersey with her husband and teenage son.  Read more of her work on randimazzella.com. 

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