If you’ve read much of anything lately, especially if you’re of a certain age and situation, you’ve probably come across the term “sandwich.” It not only aptly describes a particular situation but can also define a generation, as in Sandwich Generation.
As I am the egg salad snugly ensconced between slices of rye, I feel as if I need to share my situation, both for commiseration and simply to get it down and let it out.
For the uninitiated, sandwich refers to those of us who have children living at home while, at the same time, have a parent or set of parents aging beyond their ability to live independently. This is a tight spot indeed. Just when our children need us most—and let us not be fooled into thinking teens and preteens don’t need their parents—our attention, time, energy and patience are firmly divided.
I wasn’t particularly happy about my parents’ original decision to move clear across the country, twelve years before when my father retired. At first I thought I’d miss them and was just being selfish. After all, I’d recently had my two children and didn’t want my little ones to miss out on getting to know Grandma and Grandpa. But I saw how much they loved being out there. The weather was beautiful year-round, they golfed at a club and had friends, they went out the theatre. I was almost jealous, it sounded so idyllic.
They got older, of course, and had a series of health scares, which had me rushing to pay exorbitant fees for last-minute plane tickets to BC. My father had a mild stroke, my mother got hit by a truck at a pedestrian cross-walk, and the worst of all: my mother almost died from a bout of severe septicemia caused by a kidney infection. This last illness was devastating. In its throes she became confused and disoriented. I later read that 40–60% of patients with septic shock die within 30 days. But my mother survived. Sadly, so did the confusion and disorientation.
My father took over her care after I flew back home to my waiting family but my mother never fully recovered. I didn’t know the extent of my mother’s difficulties until after my father’s death, when I brought her to Ontario to live closer. I wish my father had shared with me more about my mother’s condition, both for his sake while he was alive, and for mine after his death. At first, I thought I might set her up in a little apartment of her own but soon realized she had trouble learning new things, like how to use my microwave, and didn’t seem able to organize herself into putting together a sandwich.
I researched independent retirement residences and found a beautiful one close to home. Thankfully, my father had provided well financially and we weren’t limited by lack of funds. My mother moved in and appeared to enjoy it, although she rarely joined the activities beyond taking meals in the dining room. And then the dreaded phone calls and warning letters began: “Your mother’s smoking in her unit again.” And that was the end of that. My rebel-without-a-cause mother was about to get kicked out. She wasn’t even being surly or belligerent. Just smoky.
Because she’s not able to manage independently, and there’s not a retirement residence in the whole country that will allow an old woman to smoke on premises, my mother now lives with me, my husband and our two teenage children. She takes the smoking outside and into the garage but continues to refuse to quit. Should she injure herself or become ill and have to go to hospital or into residential nursing care, it’ll be cold-turkey, baby.
So, now I’m cooking, laundering and cleaning for five; chasing down errant homework assignments; ferrying kids to their various lessons; installing nightlights to the bathroom; repeating myself ten times a day; worrying when I’m at the office and my mother is home; worrying whenever my kids are not at home; NOT writing fiction; and am never, ever alone.
Being egg salad (or ham or tuna) is an adjustment but I know we’ll all survive. Somehow.
If your parents are aging yet still independent, I urge you to talk to them no matter how uncomfortable you might feel about certain important topics. Discuss what would happen should they become ill or injured, or if one of them should die unexpectedly. Talk about options that might make a sudden change easier, like downsizing from the old family home to a condo or apartment (and throwing out the years of accumulated junk in the process), or moving closer to together, ideally to the same town.
Talk about how your parents are doing financially. Their generation wasn’t much for sharing that kind of information with their children, but dig in your heels and insist on knowing their situation because you might end up switching roles before you expect to. If you’re going to be the parent, you need to know.
Take Time for Yourself
Yeah, I rarely do this. But I imagine it would be a darn good idea. Independently pursue a passion; get together with friends; sit alone in a Chapters for a few hours with a book and an impossibly large coffee full of pumpkin and whipped cream (with sprinkles); go shopping for yourself (not anyone else: yourself); take a long walk.
Patience, Patience, Patience
No one is intentionally trying to make you mad (although I’m sometimes suspicious that my daughter is taking an independent class in Button Pushing 101). When my mother asks me for the third time what I’m making for a potluck dinner, I know she’s simply forgotten what I told her five minutes before; if she remembered the answer from the first time she asked, she wouldn’t ask again, right?
Sometimes I breathe. I’ve tried doing this in the room where the chaos is occurring but I get a lot of looks and the occasional offer of a paper bag. Best to go off alone to a bathroom. Breathe, count, visualize yourself NOT strangling your fifteen-year-old, your mother, or the husband who isn’t even home yet and isn’t that part of the damn problem.
Let It Go
Laundry piling up? Toilet accumulating that special yellow glow around the base? Dishes so hardened with old food you’re considering throwing them out and buying new? That’s okay. It means you’re making time for important things, like your kids, your spouse or yourself. That stuff will still be there when you get back to it. And we all need something to look forward to.
Don’t Ignore Your Children
Older children still need you. Make time to talk to them about school, friends, pressures and whatever might be bothering them. Don’t assume that because they’re older they don’t need you anymore. I think teens need parental guidance and involvement more than ever. Even if you have to leave the laundry or a dirty house, make sure you (or your spouse) are there to attend their recital, parent-teacher interview, sporting event or speech. They might not articulate it but your praise and approval still mean a lot to them.
Know You’re Not Alone
Hello! *waves* Here I am in the same boat with you.
I know at least half a dozen families who are currently living with, or have lived with, one or more aging parents. If you find someone out there in a similar situation, chances are she has some of the same struggles. Get together for coffee and a gab session about your individual frustrations and coping strategies. Knowing we aren’t alone helps us humans in managing our struggles. I don’t know why, but it does.
Cut Yourself Some Slack
So after all this trying to look after your own needs and letting things slide, you still lost patience with your mother and got angry at her. So you just yelled for 10 minutes at your daughter for using your hairbrush and not returning it to its proper place in your bathroom, and then lit into your son for eating all the school snacks. So you just called your husband a dick for deciding to clean the garage on the same day you’re trying to prepare for a dinner party for 12. These things happen (not to me; these are merely examples of what could happen, you understand). Forgive yourself and move forward. You’ll do better next time. Or not. And that’s okay too.