4 Keys to Raising Children While Caring for a Parent With Cancer

July 6, 2017
Nicole Van Hoey, PharmD

Being the caregiver for a parent with cancer is challenging, especially if you are raising your own children at the same time.share on twitter Here are some keys to balancing these demanding roles if you are in this situation, sometimes called the Sandwich Generation.

Keep it simple

Schedules can grow complicated quickly in the best of times, and you’ll likely have to manage them for yourself, your children, and your parent. Try to focus only on essential and meaningful events. Build your calendar around activities that you enjoy with your children and tasks that only you can do, like work or school meetings or doctor appointments. Learn to say no to activities that don’t fit either of those 2 categories until you feel you and your family are ready.

If you are more comfortable with paper organization, use 1 calendar to track those essential things. Then, start a separate file to store your parent’s relevant cancer paperwork, including:

  • Contact information for health care team specialists.

  • Notes taken during appointments or phone calls.

  • Copies of health insurance, legal, and financial documents.

If you are comfortable with paperless organization, try a color-coded calendar app with a daily must-do list. Consider scanning and saving all medical paperwork together in a password-protected cloud program that is separate from your work and personal items.

Take the helping hand

It is easy to feel overwhelmed, even just covering the essentials. To avoid burnout, it’s OK to ask for help—both with mundane tasks and with caregiving duties. Friends and family often want to offer support but they may need you to tell them what they can do to help. Be specific! These helping hands can go the grocery store, babysit or host playdates, prepare meals, and juggle similar household tasks. For more structured help, consider an online care calendar or support group to connect your helpers with your needs directly. A close friend can manage the calendar updates or answer questions to reduce that burden on you, too. Accepting other people’s help may be difficult for you at first, but it is often a “win-win” situation. By allowing others to show their concern with a meal, a drive to kids’ activities, or other small gestures, you can:

  • Spend more quality time with your partner or give attention to your kids.

  • Spend time with your parent, away from cancer-related appointments.

  • Give yourself a guilt-free break to take a walk, quiet your mind, or unwind with a friend.

Communicate with your children

Having a sick grandparent can be emotional and scary for grandchildren of any age. Talk with your kids about cancer and listen to their questions. Let them know that nothing they did caused the cancer. Encourage your children to share feelings by:

  • Writing in a journal or talking with friends and other family.

  • Drawing pictures for fun or for their grandparent.

  • Playing with toys or going on a playdate, and let them know it is fine to take a break from thinking about cancer.

Many children appreciate being involved in age-appropriate ways. Older kids can babysit or fold laundry, for example, and all kids appreciate scheduled time with you or with grandparents for updates or just time together. Try to keep a regular schedule and routine as much as possible. Most children find comfort in structure. Reassure your kids that your plans include them and that you are preparing for “what-if” moments like school pickups that you might have to miss. Don’t forget to tell their other caregivers at daycare or school or in your community about your new role as a caregiver for your parent, because it affects all of your family and because it allows those people to lend an extra hand.

Caregiving for the duration

Being a caregiver for an aging parent with cancer is not a 1-time commitment. Talk with your parent about his or her needs and expectations upfront to make a plan together. Then, reassess that plan about once a month, based on the realities of everyone’s collective needs. If this is difficult for you, members of your health care team, such as a patient navigator, or a therapist or clergy member may be able to help. You may also want to consider taking the following steps:

  • Request a home safety evaluation of your parent’s home. A visiting nurse or occupational therapist can do this. The provider will recommend devices and services to enhance your parent's safety and ability to function on their own.

  • Ask others to help care for your parent while you are at work or caring for your children. Other family members or friends may be able to do this. If not, consider asking the health care team for referrals to resources in your community.

  • Make caregiving “backup plans” for your parent so someone can relieve you on short notice.

  • Use technology to stay in touch with your parent when you're not there in person, such as texting.

Finally, take time to focus on things that aren’t related to cancer. Your schedule may be challenging, but these things should be considered essential. Caring for your own needs will help you be a more effective cancer caregiver over the long run:

  • Set aside time for a favorite hobby, quiet time, and personal connections.

  • Make it a priority to get enough sleep.

  • Maintain an exercise and eating routine that keeps you healthy.

  • Find emotional support for yourself online or at in-person caregiver groups. Talk with your parent’s health care team about support options.

  • Use resources available through your employer, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act and an Employee Assistance Program.

Every day as a caregiver is 1 step in a journey, and you are not on this path alone. With open communication and help, you, your children, and your parent will have the needed support to face the challenges ahead.