How to cope with the strains of middle-age
A new study has shown that mid-lifers are unhappiest of all, weighed down by caring for children and ageing parents. But there is a way to manage it all
Are you aged between 40 and 59, irritable, anxious, tired, definitely not happy - and possibly angry, frustrated or even depressed?
You're more than likely a member of the 'Sandwich Generation,' firmly stuck in the so called U-bend of middle-age as you struggle with the dual responsibilities of caring for children and elderly parents.
According to a new report, middle-aged people are the least happy category - even pensioners over 90 are happier, according to the report from the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) which found that while 65 to 79-year-olds reported the highest average levels of personal well-being, those aged 40-59 were struggling.
Author of several books on stress and depression and a practising GP, Dr Harry Barry says it's a growing problem. It's partly because women are having babies later in life, which means they're getting caught at the 'u-bend' of stress in their 40s and 50s - and partly because older people are living longer.
"Traditionally women had their babies in their 20s or early 30s but in the past decade or so there has been a gradual increase in the age at which women have their babies," he explains.
This means that by their late 40s or early 50s, middle-aged couples can be at a stage where they have a demanding career with a lot of responsibility and are caring for children or teenagers as well as helping to care for parents in their mid-to-late 70s who are starting to run into difficulties with their health.
At the same time, women in their late 40s can be hitting the menopause - so couples in this situation may end up juggling what Barry calls "a hotch-potch" of what is often chronic stress.
"When people say they are not happy what they are actually saying is that they are very stressed - this is a period of time when the great weight of responsibility falls on our shoulders."
On top of that, because stress causes high levels of cortisol, such people can be "tired but wired" which adds to their plight.
They can get irritable, angry or frustrated, find their concentration is poorer and, in terms of happiness, they feel 'flat'.
"This is an increasing trend over the last 10 to 15 years, partly because parents are having children at an older age, and also because people are living longer and getting more chronic health conditions," Barry explains.
The behaviour encouraged by a stressful life can result in more problems - people may stop exercising, eat badly, put on weight, drink more alcohol, spend unnecessarily long periods of time on the internet, and find it increasingly difficult to sleep.
"If I write another book that's what I'm going to write about - the 'Sandwich Carers'," declares psychotherapist and author Stella O'Malley.
"They're caught between high-level parenting and the guilt around caring for elderly parents," she says, adding that the logistics involved in looking after two generations at the same time can be formidable.
When several adult siblings share the weekly routine of caring for an ageing parent, there can be problems, says O'Malley.
"There can be difficulties between siblings when someone is not carrying their weight and the other siblings have to compensate and feel resentful."
The physical and emotional strain from these 'push-pull factors' can result in stress, resentment and worry, she says.
"When people are looking after their parents they feel they should be looking after their kids and vice versa - and on top of that they're often holding down a job too."
However, there are supports if you're prepared to make the effort - exercise, regular good food, a healthy social life and time out as a couple together are crucial to juggling the needs of two family generations, believes artist Linda Proudfoot (44) and mother of three boys, who also cares for her 83-year-old mum, Gabrielle.
After Linda's father died in 1996, Gabrielle moved into a granny flat at Linda's home in Rathfarnham.
The arrangement has had numerous benefits for the family says Linda, who says her sons, aged 13, 11 and eight love their granny, who also enjoys a good relationship with her son-in-law.
"Mum is always around; she's here for the children, and the children and I have gained from having her here.
"Mum was very supportive to me all my life and it is my turn now and I am happy to be there for her."
Over the past two years, Gabrielle has experienced anxiety and panic attacks, which require regular visits to hospital to have her medication adjusted. She is also increasingly unable to leave the house.
"My life has changed because of mum's needs, and the fact that I am caring for both the children and an older adult means my life is very busy," says Linda.
Because Gabrielle doesn't like to be alone - and doesn't enjoy being away from home - the family tend not to go away on holiday.
"Mum's happiness is very important to me and when I see the stress on her face at my suggestion that we might go away for the weekend, I generally decide it's not worth it," explains Linda.
"She was always very good to me; she was a great mother and very strong.
"Between the two generations, you are juggling and trying to keep the ordinary family life going, involving mum and making sure she is okay and taking her to the GP or the chiropodist or hospital.
"It is another layer of responsibility, but I look at it as positively as I can.
"There have been times when I felt trapped, but I have a lot of support."
Linda makes sure to eat well, exercise frequently, and have occasional nights out with her husband.
She also enjoys membership of a choir which sings twice a month, and takes a positive attitude to life.
"The choir members have similar lives and responsibilities to me," she says, adding that she realises the importance of looking after herself.
"Mum is quite content when the daily routine is unchanged but she does not like any kind of change - it makes her anxious."
When you're in a demanding situation like this, good nutrition is key, says consultant nutritionist Gay Godkin.
"You have to refuel properly - not eating properly is one of the things most people would be guilty of - they might tend to snack on tea and toast or eat a sandwich and when they do eat they may be making the wrong food choices or eating on the run."
Expert tips to help you thrive in those tricky middle decades
Consultant nutritionist Gaye Godkin says:
• Have a regular, healthy meal routine, featuring home-cooked food - and don't snack.
• Tackle any stress-related magnesium deficit:
"Magnesium is important for heart and muscle health and the adrenal glands," says nutritionist Gaye Godkin, who explains that high stress levels can result in magnesium deficiency.
Find this essential mineral in yoghurts, nuts and seeds, as well as green leafy veg.
• Stock up on your vitamin B levels - crucial for brain health, energy and metabolism. "Eat red meat eggs porridge, brown rice or quinoa," she advises.
• Cut down on coffee. "One cup a day is enough because caffeine produces adrenalin, the stress hormone."
• Eliminate biscuits, cakes, bars - these disrupt your blood sugar levels.
• Eat plenty of protein and healthy fats like olive oil, almonds, walnuts, avocado and oily fish as opposed to the trans-fats in chips, pizzas or doughnuts.
• Eat lots of fruit and vegetables.
Psychotherapist and author Stella O'Malley says:
• Be aware that when your stress levels are high, you may overreact. When you find yourself overreacting, realise that it is being caused by stress and step back, she advises.
• Speak up about issues that are of concern.
• Don't sit in silence. If one sibling is not pulling their weight, and the others are reluctant to mention it, start a conversation - but don't attack, she cautions, even though you are shouldering an unfair share of the caring burden.
• Make time to rest and re-charge.
• Take any help going even if it's less than what's required. Recognise that while some adult siblings may not be helpful with caring or nursing, they may be extremely good at financial management or sorting out legal issues.
• Recognise that you may need to lower your standards in terms of availability or face health problems, so don't have tunnel vision - you may always have been the one to bring mum to the doctor, but now that you can't it may be time for someone else to step in - or to consider paying a neighbour to do it.
GP Dr Harry Barry says:
• Exercise for 30 minutes in the fresh air every day and as a couple if possible.
• Monitor your alcohol intake - be careful about getting hooked on it as a way of dealing with stress.
• Have a regular, healthy sleep routine.
• Make time for yourself to enjoy something you like doing - a hobby for example.
• Develop good 'tech hygiene' - don't stay up all night shopping, on internet chatrooms or checking emails on your phone.