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Eight million Canadians provide care to loved ones, and two million of those are sandwiched between caregiving to elderly loved ones and child-rearing.

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Marilyn charged into the retirement home lobby, her purse flying behind her. She had just come from dropping her son off at high school late and she was calling someone to postpone a work meeting. Her father, David, had wandered away from his retirement home the previous day. The police had been involved and eventually brought David back, but the retirement home told Marilyn that because of David's escape and wandering they could no longer care for him.

"How can it count as 'escape and wandering' if he informed the staff he was going to the library, put on his hat and coat and walked out the front door?" she wondered, exasperated. Marilyn was leaving for a much-needed vacation the next day and her options, funds and time were limited. She had few choices and none of them seemed good.

Marilyn is a member of the "sandwich generation," a term used to describe people sandwiched between caring for parents with failing health and their own children. Boomers born between 1946 and 1964 are the most likely members of the sandwich club, but they are now being joined by members of Generation X. (Welcome! Here is your complimentary stress ball and prematurely grey hair.)

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Statistics Canada's 2012 Report on Caregiving reports that eight million Canadians provide care to loved ones, and two million of those are sandwiched between caregiving to elderly loved ones and child-rearing.

Admittedly, I met Marilyn on a particularly bad day of a sandwiched boomer's life. Her emotions were raw as she told me she could not sleep, she was down, she was overwhelmed and she had no energy. What she described are all signs of caregiver stress and left unchecked can quickly become caregiver burnout.

If you find yourself in this situation, here are four things to keep in mind.

Take care of yourself first

This is counterintuitive, difficult and if you fail to do it, you can fail everyone around you. As flight attendants remind us at the beginning of every flight, put your oxygen mask on first. Marilyn was right to keep her vacation plans. She was at the end of several ropes and she was unable to continue her work-family-self balancing act without some rest.

Everything will not be perfect

I watched Marilyn gather information, decide what was the best of two terrible options and move forward. Short-term outcomes were far from perfect, but they were what she had to work with at the time. Making a choice is better than staying still.

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Ask for help

Marilyn accepted help from her neighbours, her caregivers, anyone available to help with child care. She asked her sister in Germany to check in by e-mail while she was away for her weekend vacation.

Explore options

Marilyn was able to talk about her plight to others. She disclosed her financial situation, her family issues and was open to any thoughts or ideas that people could offer.

Marilyn navigated her way though her dad's care puzzle. It took a few weeks for him to get into a place that could meet his escalating needs. The interim solutions were not perfect, but Marilyn accepted the situation as temporary.

I learned a lot from how Marilyn managed to keep the moving parts of her dad's care emergencies going in a forward direction, as well as keep her career, her family obligations and herself afloat. Marilyn gathered information, looked for solutions and let go of the idea of perfection. Most importantly, Marilyn kept her oxygen mask cranked up high.

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Renée Henriques is a registered nurse and the owner and managing director of ComForcare Home Care Toronto, providing personal support services to seniors.

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