“Maybe you can do it after soccer season?” I actually said these words out loud. To my mom. About her hip replacement.
My 78-year old mother is struggling with arthritis, and her doctor recently told her that it may be time to consider a hip replacement to alleviate some pain. Of course I want to be there for her, but she lives six hours away and I have three kids and a husband that travels.
So, my first thought when my amazing mother mentioned that she may be down and out for a few weeks, and who has been incredibly supportive throughout my entire life, was, “How can I make this work? How can I be there for my kids and for my aging parent?”
Welcome to the Sandwich Generation, kids, the most exhausting, draining, guilt-induced part of life I’ve encountered thus far. It will stress you out to the max and ensure you feel like you are failing every single person in your life at all times.
In simplest terms, the Sandwich Generation is a generation of people (usually in their 40s and 50s) who care for their aging parents while simultaneously supporting their own children. According to the Pew Research Center, just over one of every eight Americans aged 40 to 60 is both raising a child and caring for a parent, in addition to between seven and ten million adults caring for their aging parents from a long distance (raising hand here!).
When the tables are turned and it’s the child now taking care of a parent, it can be daunting. It’s like being a new parent all over again. Emergency situations can happen at any time. You have no idea the duration of the situation. And sometimes there is no end in sight. Opposite of raising children, elderly parents become less independent and able to do things on their own. It can be a sad, humbling, and lonely time for all involved.
It’s no surprise that women often take on the greatest burden during this time. While sons will happily foot the bill to support care, it’s the daughters who step in to help their parents with tasks such as meal planning, bathing, insurance and doctors’ appointments, all while also taking care of their own children, job, household issues, etc.
It feels like you are being pulled in 15 different directions, but never reaching any of them. It’s putting out fires only to continuously smell smoke coming from the next room.
And while you are trying to be all the things to all the people who need you, you also have to remember you are a wife, too. Caring for an aging parent can last many years, and it can have a tangible impact on your marriage.
While I’m fortunate that my mother is still relatively independent and her mental capacity is strong, I have friends who are dealing with parents facing Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. I watch as they worry about the physical safety of their mothers, or stress about taking over the financial decisions for their fathers.
But mostly, it is a heavy burden to feel like you are never doing enough for the people you love. It is making impossible choices each and every day, hoping the playing card house you’ve built doesn’t come crashing to the ground. It’s hoping your friends, your kids, your partner, your parents, or your employer understands when you can’t get done what you promised. It’s feeling like you are a super hero on some days, and being so tired you can’t let the dog out the next.
Learning how to tackle the stress and guilt is important for those of us caught in the middle. For some, that means keeping a lunch date with a friend or a standing time to talk to a therapist, for others it means enlisting additional caregivers or outsourcing tasks such as house cleaning or grocery shopping.
But mostly, it means lowering the bar and prioritizing what’s important–what’s really important. I’ve found my kids are incredibly understanding if I miss one of their events because I have to attend to something for their grandmother, and my mom will happily rearrange something to work around our schedule. I’ve learned that contributing in a small way when I can to the various requests I get is better than nothing. And leaning on my friends for support–and offering the same in return when they need it–helps me manage my guilt.
While I often feel overwhelmed and lie awake nights with worry, I am also so grateful that I can be there for my mother, just as she has always been there for me. It is lovely when we have long phone conversations or when I can spend one-on-one time with her, regardless of the circumstance. I would choose to care for her again and again.
But mostly, it makes me ever more cognizant of the beautiful sacrifices so many of us make in our lifetimes, and how worthwhile they are. To those sandwiched in the trenches with me, I salute you.
We’re all in this together.
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