Coping with the crushing reality of the sandwich generation

Five tools to manage stress when it hits

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There is a perception that my role as an investment and wealth adviser is to focus on “the numbers.” In reality, that could not be further from the truth. Managing wealth is far more than a financial equation. My role is to uncover the human story behind the numbers and create a plan to guide my clients and their loved ones through the highest highs and the lowest lows of their lives.

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There are lots of statistics in the world of wealth management. By all accounts, I am a statistic. I am one of the 47 per cent of adults aged 40 to 59 years who make up the sandwich generation, aptly named for those stuck in the middle caring for aging parents while raising young children.

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I have come to learn that being vulnerable and share my own personal experience brings connection and comfort to discussions. I can empathize with the emotions of my clients and their families face as they come to terms with caring for an aging parent while raising a young family.

On my 40th birthday, I received a call from my parents that forever changed my life. My father, then only 69 years old, was diagnosed with a terminal, incurable condition called multiple systems atrophy and rapid onset vascular dementia.

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It is crushing when you hear such news. Then you begin your journey through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance.


In this stage, you struggle to accept reality. You may feel you’re in shock, numb, a sense of disbelief. Denial serves as a defense mechanism that you use to cope with the initially overwhelming emotions. The thoughts running through your mind are: it’s too soon; I need more time; there must be a doctor or specialist who can help us.


As the denial begins to fade, feelings of anger and resentment surface. In this stage, you may direct your anger towards yourself, others or even a higher power. It is normal to feel frustrations or a sense of injustice. For me, the anger at first was projected outward. Why us, why our family, why my dad? And then the anger turned inward in the form of soul-crushing guilt: I should have visited more; I wish I had not been so busy; how could I miss the signs?

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In an attempt to regain control or postpone the pain, you enter the bargaining phase to try to make sense of the situation. Maybe if I quit my job, can I be there to help my mom take care of my dad? Is that financially feasible? Is that what he would want me to do? I can’t ask him because he no longer knows who I am.


The stress of being part of the sandwich generation can lead to burnout, depression, isolation and guilt — all of which I experienced. You are pulled in so many directions, struggling to juggle all the balls in the air: a busy career, and your role as a wife, mother, daughter, sister. The depression stage is characterized by feelings of sadness and a deep sense of loss. These stages take a toll on your emotional and physical well-being. For me, that led to a trip to the emergency room with a pain so deep in my chest that I thought I was having a heart attack.

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This is the understanding that loss is part of life. That doesn’t mean the pain is completely gone, but you have found a way to integrate the loss into your life and move forward.

Five tools helped me cope as a busy working mom stuck in the sandwich generation.

Plan for the future

As dementia progresses, it is important to have discussions and make plans for your loved one’s future care. Explore legal and financial matters, such as wills, power of attorney, beneficiary designs and advanced health-care directives while your loved one is still capable of making decisions. Once your loved one is no longer capable of making decisions for themselves, wills, powers of attorney and health-care directives cannot be changed.

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Manage stress

Finding healthy ways to manage stress is crucial. Engage in activities you enjoy, practice relaxation techniques such as breathwork and meditation. These have been crucial tools for me.

Exercise regularly

This is one that is so easy to find an excuse to avoid. There is always someone who needs your time. As women, we are always quick to put others’ needs before our own, but finding time to focus on your own mental and physical health is a priority not a luxury.

Consider counseling or therapy

You grieve twice when a loved one has dementia. Once for the mental loss of the person you know, and then again when the physical loss becomes a reality. It is a long and emotional taxing journey.

Give yourself grace

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It is OK to not feel OK. Grief is cyclical; it has no beginning and no end. Even long after you think you have processed the diagnosis, the grief returns and hits you at the most random moments. It could be a song on the radio or the smell of your favorite childhood meal cooking in the kitchen that brings back a fond childhood memory. I would give anything for one more dinner conversation with my dad at the kitchen table. It is the little things you take for granted in everyday life that you come to value most when they are taken away.

I have come to accept that grief and loss is a universal human experience. I recognize firsthand from the stories that my clients share with me on a daily basis that my stories are not unique.

For anyone out there who is struggling with the crushing weight of the sandwich generation, know that you are not alone and, most importantly, you are doing a great job. Having a plan and proper professional advice cannot change the outcome, but it can take some of the emotional stress off your overflowing plate.

Chantal McNeily is an investment and wealth adviser with RBC Dominion Securities.

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