We’ve heard many terms tossed around, but they only truly mean something once they apply to you. Such is the case with the term ‘alpha daughter’. Millions of people find themselves in this situation within the sandwich generation, and I am one of them. My mom always referred to me as her “strong-willed child“; little did I know it would come into play in a different way one day. 

“The ‘alpha daughter’, in the context of eldercare, is an adult child who steps up to care for one or both parents when they require assistance. This assistance could range from paying bills to inviting parents to move in so they can be better cared for. They also act as the main advocate for a parent when it comes to medical or financial-related decisions,” explains Jason van den Brand, founder and CEO of Wellahead, an online marketplace that vets loan options for seniors and their families when they need funds for long-term care. 

The alpha daughter is usually the family member who always organizes the family get-togethers, reunions and vacations, explains van den Brand. “They are the ‘glue,’ the doer, and they are the ones to call you and say, ‘Come on, we’ve gotta do this…Mom and Dad are getting older. 

While ‘alpha’ typically means “first,” the alpha daughter, in this case, doesn’t necessarily have to be the eldest, nor does she have to identify as a female. It’s anyone who finds themselves in this role. “Often they are the type to take charge of all situations and operate very much with an “I’ll do whatever it takes to make this work” mentality. They are willing to make the most sacrifices, frequently at the expense of their marriage, job and even taking care of themselves,” says van den Brand. 

More than 30 million people in the U.S. are caring for elderly parents over 65, and demographic trends will see this number grow during the next two decades. 

Add in that many current-day alpha daughters are in the sandwich generation, meaning that they are caring for young children while simultaneously caring for ailing baby boomer parents, and it’s a recipe for stress. “Balancing the needs of their care-dependent parents while managing their dependents and their careers, not to mention their health, is the equivalent of four full-time jobs,” states van den Brand.

About a quarter of U.S. adults over 40 are in the sandwich generation, which can be exhausting, expensive and emotional, according to Mental Health America. 

Midway through my 40s, I recently found myself not only caring for our four young children but suddenly in a position where I needed to help care for my mom as well. A health scare sent her into a tailspin, which included multiple ER visits and overnight stays on my part. The fact that she lived alone and an hour away meant a decision needed to be made—do we care for her remotely, or do we move her here with us? 

She was still relatively young and healthy, at 68 years old, but now afraid of being by herself. We chose the latter in an attempt to give everyone peace of mind. 

A day in the life of the alpha daughter 

Whether mom or dad is in the home with you or not, a typical day for the alpha daughter can look like this:

  • Taking care of children and family in the morning
  • Going to work all day
  • Taking time off work to bring a parent to a doctor’s appointment
  • Taking care of your children and family in the early afternoon (sports, music, etc.)
  • Taking care of your children and family in the early evening (homework, housework, dinner, baths, bedtime, etc.)
  • Heading to your parent’s house with extra food to ensure they have enough for the evening and tomorrow 
  • Continuing into the night to catch up on any of those items mentioned above and finally getting to bed after midnight to do it all over again

Even if a hired caregiver exists, “the sandwich generation alpha daughter has to manage the caregiver’s schedule and training,” says van den Brand. 

This encompasses several tasks and duties:

  • Purchasing groceries and ensuring there is food in the house 
  • Attending every doctor’s appointment to ensure their parent has an advocate
  • Making sure all meds are picked up from the pharmacy and that their parent takes them correctly 
  • Checking the home for any fall risks and making the proper amendments 
  • Assisting with travel if they no longer drive 
  • Managing cell phones, internet, TV services, and paying bills 

As if all that doesn’t seem exhausting enough, the average cost nationwide for in-home care or assisted living can range from $3,000 a month to upwards of $7,000—a figure that’s expected to double in the next eight years. That’s nearly three times the average mortgage payment. 

Costs aside, the alpha daughter often feels alone in this role, even if she does have a supportive spouse or siblings. “They carry so much on their shoulders. It’s essential that they care for themselves first and foremost, with proper sleep and rest,” advises van den Brand. 

Van den Brand also suggests relying on your community or friends around the same age for additional support. “Talk about it with your friends and family, find your support group(s), and share your experience while hearing about others. Family caregiver support groups are organized through caregiving agencies, religious institutions, and Facebook. A quick Google search in your area should bring up several options,” he adds. 

You can also seek the advice of a senior care manager or go to your local agency on aging to find free and subsidized services that can help relieve the burden. Finally, set boundaries and ask for help. “There is very clearly an expectation that has been set that “you can do it all,” but at what cost? By letting your family know what you will and will not do while asking them for help to fill the gaps, you can bring back some sanity to your life,” affirms van den Brand. 

“It can be hard to say no, but if you have siblings who cannot help physically, they may be able to financially help with paying for house cleaners, food deliveries, ride services, and caregivers,” he says. 

It takes a village to raise a child—and to care for our parents when they need us to.

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