Triple-Decker Grandparents: Sandwiched Between Elderly Parents, Adult Children, and Grandchildren

written by Bev Phillips
3 · 15 · 21

In 1981, social worker Dorothy Miller originated the term “sandwich generation” to describe those who are working full time while simultaneously caring for their children and aging parents. This describes over half of people in their 40’s and 50’s in the United States. But a new term has emerged for those of us who are older adults wedged between advanced elderly parents, adult children, grandchildren, or even great-grandchildren: “triple-decker club sandwich”! One in three families today include four generations. 

I have found it to be quite challenging to be a good spouse, parent, grandparent, and daughter as I fill so many familial roles. (And that doesn’t include being an employee, friend, church member, or community volunteer.) As a Christ-follower, I take seriously the assignment  to “teach your children and their children” (Deuteronomy 4:9) about the Lord as well as the commandment to “honor your parents” (Deut 5:16; Ephesians 6:2) and to “care for those in your family” (I Timothy 5:8). Yet, the attempt to balance the multiple roles of nurturing caregiver, mentor, historian, role model, and relational connector can sometimes feel like we’re being squeezed beyond our ability to cope. So let’s examine the layers of this triple-decker club sandwich.

Every sandwich begins with bread, and a triple-decker has an extra layer of it.

Who hasn’t been drawn into the kitchen by the tantalizing smell of fresh baked bread? The basis of good bread is the yeast or leavening that produces a light texture as it spreads silently throughout the dough. This transforms the heavy lump of dough into something delightfully edible. Jesus is referred to as the “Bread of Life” (John 6:35) and the “Living Bread” (John 6:51). He even uses bread to represent His body which was broken for us at the Last Supper. In order to be a leavening influence in our relationships with family members of all ages, we will need to begin by allowing God’s Holy Spirit to permeate all aspects of our daily life. He is the One who will transform us and them into the people He wants us to become. Without Him, the bread of our club sandwich will be heavy and inedible. May the way we live our daily lives and love our family draw them to Jesus and to us.

So what is the meat in our sandwich?

Meat can be tough or tender, difficult or easy to chew and swallow. How do we come across to our adult children (another new term: “chadult” is an adult whose parents are still living) or our elderly parents? Is it easy to have relationships with us? Or is time spent with us more like chewing on a tough piece of meat, trying to get through it and swallow it? Practice showing respect to your chadults, allowing them to be the parents of your grandchildren as you support, encourage, and speak well of them whenever possible. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received regarding my chadults is “don’t give advice unless it is first requested.” Rather, look for ways to affirm and to be a good listener. Giving grace usually comes before speaking truth; let your actions precede your words.

Can you say “cheese”? 

This word that we most frequently hear when a family photo is being taken is an essential ingredient for a club sandwich. Take lots of pictures of all those smiles. Not only are they good for scrapbooks but they represent fun. Without some lightheartedness, all families will suffer. The study of laughter and its effects on the body is called “gelotology.”  Up to 15 facial muscles are used when a person laughs, and 10 minutes of belly-laughing exercises abdominal muscles as much as 30 minutes on a rowing machine (I definitely prefer laughing). Proverbs 17:22 tells us that “a merry heart is good medicine.” Laughing reduces blood pressure, decreases stress hormones, boosts the “feel good” brain endorphins, and promotes circulation. Having cross-generational fun together can decrease relational strain, promote stronger relationships, and build positive memories. 

Some people enjoy onions in their club sandwich.

When I think of onions, tears come to mind. When dealing with four generations, there are many times when we encounter reasons for tears. Strained or broken relationships, deep disappointments, hurtful words, poor choices, illness, divorce, decline, and death may touch our families despite all our prayers, efforts, and good intentions. The tears shed may help to wash away doubts or fears, release pain, and express deep prayer even without words. We can model a humble heart with apologies or by seeking forgiveness when it applies to us. When it is out of our hands, we cover our loved ones with our love and prayers. And we can hold onto hope for the future as we count on God’s promise in Revelation 7:17 that “He will someday wipe every tear from our eyes”.  

To ensure a vegetable content, most sandwiches include lettuce.

It may be surprising to know that lettuce is more than just a green crunchy ingredient; it contains vitamin A which is essential for good vision and eye health. I John 4:7 says “let us love one another, for love is from God.” Love is the lettuce in our family sandwich — the ingredient that is tender, delicate, and flavorful. The love which God provides through us to our grandchildren, our children, our spouses, and our elderly parents is essential to maintaining His vision and purpose for our daily lives as we love and serve them. Just as wilted lettuce makes a sandwich unappealing, our love for others needs to be kept fresh through time spent with God in His word in order for us to remain refreshed when we feel pulled in so many directions.

Triple decker club sandwiches are not all alike; they are as unique in their ingredients as are our family structures. Being part of this sandwich impacts our wallets, our time, our freedom, and our emotions when facing competing priorities. It is vital to not neglect your own needs as you seek to balance all these aspects: eat healthy, rest, laugh a lot, and seek help when it is needed. 

 But sandwiches are not just for looking at — they are made to be consumed. We eat them one bite at a time; each day, say, “I’m doing the best I can; what is Jesus’ assignment for me today?” Let us be thankful for ALL the ingredients. Leaning on Jesus for strength, wisdom, guidance, and comfort is essential to maintaining our balance. God has chosen us for this time, these situations, and these specific people. What a privilege and honor to serve Him in this way.

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Bev Phillips


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1 Comment

  1. Norma Dunkelbarger

    Great article


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