Each day, Jared Okemwa checks on the well-being of his 59-year-old mother who lives in Kisii.
The 30-year-old graduate teacher, yet to secure employment is a single father to three-year-old twins besides also providing for his 98-year-old granny.
Okemwa owns a posho mill and also deals in cooking gas cylinders at Ponda-Mali in Nakuru town. With his little earnings, he also supports his 42-year-old elder brother and his family.
All these leave him financially and emotionally drained and “I do not want my twins to suffer. I am also not ready to give up because they look upon me for their success,” says Okemwa adding that “I would also be haunted to have my mother and grandma starve to death yet they depend on me. Making someone happy is what makes me happy.”
Okemwa is among the tens of thousands of Kenyans in the ‘sandwich generation’ basically those sandwiched between taking care of their aging parents besides their own families and siblings. Their lives have since been worsened by the Coronavirus pandemic and it’s not just in Kenya as the Sandwich generation is a global phenomenon.
Christian Ro of the BBC noted in 2021 that “multigenerational needs have become even more pressing during the Covid-19 pandemic, with record numbers of adult children moving back home and with elderly parents needing new forms of care.”
Add looming recession, layoffs, and shifting demographics besides the fact that the majority compete with their peers and you have a whole generation with a whole gamut of mental health issues besides, stress and burnout.
Lilian Anyira, 42, from Mbale in Vihiga County is also in the sandwich generation, navigating between education, marriage, and taking care of her two children and five of her elder sister - now working in the Middle East.
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However, the sister has not been remitting money to support her children, and reaching her has faced endless headwinds.
Anyira buys food and clothing for her sister’s children aged five, six, nine, 12, and 15 years besides footing their school fees.
Anyira also takes care of her 80-year-old mother, responsibilities that leave her so drained “I at times think of ignoring everyone and only supporting my mother and children, but again, I think about the future of my sister’s children, and out of empathy, I support where necessary.”
Dr Geoffrey Wango, a senior lecturer in Counselling Psychology at the University of Nairobi, explains that Kenya’s ‘sandwich generation’ mostly ranges from 35 to 54 years-most of whom are already settled down in their own marriages but have to financially bankroll older folk.
Athina Vlachantoni, a gerontologist at the University of Southampton, says unsurprisingly, “there are gendered differences in sandwiched pressures as “in general, we know women more likely to provide more intensive personal care to older relatives than men.”
This leaves most emotionally and mentally drained and with endless financial strain after taxes and “the Sandwich generation is more stressed up, and some suffer delusion,” says Dr Wango.
Three years ago, for instance, Okemwa developed suicidal thoughts after his wife bolted during the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic that wrecked many families financially.
Okemwa recalls “I wanted to die because of financial struggle, but I thought about my mother, grandmother, and children who depend on me for upkeep and changed my mind.”
Dr Wango advises that the generation should have self-care as the majority of the sandwich generation are from poor or middle-income families.
Among ways of reducing stress includes; talking to families and friends, prayers and mitigation, and avoiding unhealthy behaviours like excessive drinking. Taking walks, exercising and having hobbies, and saving to take a holiday also helps.
If not careful, he said the sandwich generation might miss on spending more time with their spouses and families, yet “this is the prime of their lives and should therefore get organised on how to live, and plan better for future. Unfortunately, if not careful, they can forget about themselves and their future,” warns Dr Wango.
Amid struggling to care for his family, Okemwa guards his personal space and self-care by taking walks to Nakuru National Park, visiting children’s homes, and playing soccer with local clubs.
Also, he keeps off phone calls from his dependents who need money as he feels obliged to help, yet he might not be able to.
The financial drain sometimes sees him dispense with personal shopping for new attire as “it drains me to see someone suffer. But I remind myself that I am important and need to take care of myself.”
Dr Edith Kwobah, a psychiatry doctor and the director of the mental health department at Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital (MTRH), says African societal makes it okay to care for parents and relatives, but people need to be realistic and have priorities aligned with available resources.
But the main challenge of the sandwich generation is that it handles so much for themselves and other people with inadequate resources.
“Sandwich generation end up taking loans that they cannot service, and engage in illegal business,” says Dr Kwobah adding that being realistic by evaluating what is achievable leads to having manageable priorities.
“For example, you do not have to pay for everyone who needs school fees because they are many,” advises Dr Kwobah adding that the sandwich generation also compares itself with former schoolmates without considering their lifestyle and source of income.
“Do not expect to achieve other person’s goals and dreams because you do not know where they are coming from,” says Dr Kwobah adding that people should aspire to “live a balanced life within their means as it is okay not to live in a posh estate, not to drive the biggest car.”
The expert also recommends that the sandwich generation sets time to enjoy life and be happy.
However, some people she said are workaholics, and by the time they discover they need to enjoy life, they are already aged and struggling with old age diseases like hearing loss, cataracts and refractive errors, back and neck pain and osteoarthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, depression, and dementia.
“People should learn to enjoy the journey and do their best. Failure to attain plans set by the sandwich generation does not only affect their financial strength but mental health, according to Dr Kwobah.
In developed countries, Individuals who attain the age of 18 years are introduced to health schemes and given education support to enroll in colleges and universities, relieving the burden of parental support.
A number of the elderly are also moved to elderly homes, where they receive financial, health, and social support.
However, Dr Wango observes that in Africa, the elderly feel neglected and abandoned, when moved away from their homes which impacts their mental health as “it is not African to take parents to an elderly home, because such a move makes them feel disowned, and they end up losing memory, and they suffer loneliness more,” says Dr Wango.
As mitigation, people should save enough, and enroll in social schemes like NSSF to avoid straining their children after retirement.
But the BBC noted that “we’re also seeing more “triple-decker sandwich” or “double sandwich” individuals. This involves, for instance, people in their 60s helping to care for their grandchildren, which allows their adult children to work, as well as supporting their own parents in their 90s.”