The Sandwich Generation: Caring for Those Who are Chronically in Need
This is the third part in a series of articles for those of us who are in the “Sandwich Generation,” somewhere between the elderly and the young adults, and caring for both. We’ve reared our children and launched them into adulthood, and now they come back to us for advice with real-life issues, or worse, they don’t come to us at all. And to top it off, our parents are aging and need help making decisions about end-of-life care that break our hearts into bits.
In our case, our daughter has become fully disabled seventeen years after the original diagnosis of MS, leaving her husband to become full-time caregiver to her, and their two adorable children. A few years ago, my husband lost both of his parents eighteen days apart, after they spent a short four months in assisted living. We waited too long to get them the help they needed, but in all honesty, they didn’t want it. They just wanted us to be there for them, and they wanted to be home. I lost my father a year ago, and am now sharing responsibility for my precious mother, who lives six hours away. I am still a working woman, planning on retirement in two years when I hit sixty-two. This particular article is devoted to caring for those who are chronically in need.
In our children’s generation, there is a very real and present need to care for our daughter and her family. Since I have already addressed taking care of the caregiver in a previous article, I will focus solely on her. Here are some of the ways I have found to support my daughter personally, while leaving her dignity intact:
Time Out: Literally, time OUT! Erin rarely gets out of the house, due to mobility issues. Her closest friends take her to Bible study, and out to dinner with the girls. I bring Erin and the kids to our house for a weekend, so she can have a change of scenery – a “vacation” of sorts. I once took Erin and the kids to my Mom’s for Spring Break week. I will not be doing that one again by myself (which makes me realize how difficult my son-in-law has it on a daily basis).
Listening: I can be a sounding board for my daughter when she has limited resources available for advice. Some things she encourages me to share with her Dad, and others she just wants to tell to another woman who will protect her heart. She worries about her kids. She worries about her health. She worries about her future. And above all, she worries about what her illness is doing to her family. When I listen, sometimes I am her best friend, sometimes I am a mama bear, sometimes I am a counselor, and sometimes I am crying right along with her. I am careful to protect her trust in me, though sometimes I make mistakes and disappoint both of us.
Liaison: I often fill the role of liaison for Erin and her family. I communicate with other members of the family about their needs and plans. Sometimes I am asked to call one of her friends for something, or to do some research on community services that are available to them.
“Me” Time: Erin is still young and beautiful, and she cares how she looks to her husband. He has seen her in some extremely unflattering situations. I take her out shopping for a new outfit – something she can feel pretty in, and something she can choose for herself. I take her to the salon for a fresh haircut. I buy her unmentionables, so her husband doesn’t have to for once. We paint her fingernails and toenails, and do hair and makeup before returning home.
In my parents’ generation, my mother is alone for the first time in over sixty years. Thankfully my sister lives nearby, and is retired. She carries the day-to-day responsibilities for Mom – something I’m immensely grateful for, and something I feel terribly guilty about. Here are some ways I have found to support my mother, while leaving her dignity intact:
Quality Time: When I am there, I spend as much time with Mom as possible. The TV might be on for background noise, but we rarely watch it. We play games: Five Crowns, Perquacky, Scrabble, Bananagrams, Rummikub, Phase 10, etc. Sometimes I take whatever craft I’m into and we make it together. Most recently, we have been processing sixty years’ worth of married life, going through a lifetime of memorabilia. Mom gets to walk through precious memories, while I soak in this intimate view of my parents as friends and lovers.
Listening: Some weeks I call Mom every day. Some weeks I call every few days – it depends on life, basically. My sister once remarked that Mom always complains about illnesses to me that she hasn’t even mentioned to her. I pointed out how young and vibrant she and her husband are. They breeze into an event, and you know they are there. Susan and Arnie are do-ers; they do not sit down for a minute, and boy, can they get things done. I am a lot more laid back, with health issues of my own. My Mom wants to appear energetic for Susan and Arnie. With them, she gets to be youthful, active and busy. But then she needs to crash and be elderly for a moment. She can do that comfortably in front of me, because I have slowed down, too. Mom needs both of us in her life, because we each minister to different parts of her.
Surrogate Pet: My Mom loves animals; we always had a cat when I was growing up. I bring Lily, our Yorkie, with me whenever I can. Mom isn’t particularly a dog lover, but Lily is small enough to sit on her lap like a cat. The dog has accidents in the house, which causes consternation in the family, but it’s worth every minute when I see Lily fly up the stairs into Mom’s waiting arms. The night of Dad’s funeral, Lily spent it sleeping on his pillow. She has not done that before, and only once since. Sometimes Mom just needs a furry friend.
Encouragement: Mom has dared to go on living without Dad. It broke her heart to lose him, and her grief is more tangible this year than last; she visits his grave almost weekly. Mom has dared to imagine paring her life down to something more manageable, by moving into a retirement community. She still gets together on a regular basis with several friends, to do lunch, play games, or shop. She has taken up a new hobby with the adult coloring book craze. My sister and I have applauded these efforts to keep going, by being actively involved in helping her make these things happen. It means breaking up the household we grew up in, but we get rare insight into Mom’s thought life while we process the memories together.
I’ve never really thought about the girl my mother used to be. She had cousins, and girlfriends, and went to high school. She played pranks and piano concerts, and started a romance that led to daughters and sons-in-law, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. I don’t want to think about a future without her, and I don’t want to think about where my daughter is going to end up. This thing called LIFE is a muddy mix of miracle and madness, celebration and heartache. I used to wonder where all the 50-somethings were at church. There were active adults in their forties, and active adults in their sixties, but it seemed like all the 50-somethings were missing. Now I know where they were; they were sandwiched in between life and death, heaven and hell, and they were making the most they could of those final, awful, wonderful moments as life trudged on full-circle.