As defined by Wikipedia, (yes, this is lazy, but it is as good a definition as any) “the SANDWICH GENERATION is a generation of people who care for their aging parents while supporting their own children.” The term was officially added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in July 2006.
They forget to add that most of of us in this situation who are female are, oh yes, also going through menopause at the same time. So, let’s add mood swings, hot flashes and sleep deprivation. And maybe working harder than we ever have before and making less money. Or in jeopardy of losing our jobs, or just enjoying the work less than we used to. Many of us are just SO tired. And/or, because so many of us had our children late, those pesky teens are still in the house as we careen towards fifty or sixty or beyond. And then you factor in the recession and the “boomerang” generation, many of our “kids,” done with college, possibly in graduate school, some working or far too many not working or doing free internships or selling pressed juice while pursuing an artistic dream (I have one of those) are living at home. Or living in an apartment across town or across the country but being subsidized by us. Because even if our kids are working really hard, some of these cities are impossible to live in with the kind of salaries many if not most college graduates are earning. And at the same time we are navigating the often overwhelming healthcare options for our parents, sometimes subsidizing them as well. Or at least losing sleep over our parent’s dwindling accounts. Some of us have our own little health issues, cancer, auto immune illnesses, heart disease, obesity, shall I go on? And if we have been lucky enough to have been spared, it’s not likely that our spouses are also in perfect shape. Or our best friend, or her husband, or his husband. And maybe, more than we should, we are trying to take care of them, too. As I write this, I have been trying to plan a small lunch in honor of a close friend who is turning sixty this month. Four women. My friend’s other two friends have schedules that are impossible to predict because one has a husband with pancreatic cancer for whom chemo has stopped working and the other was just diagnosed with breast cancer, this week. I mean, really? In other words, that time when we just took good health and wellness for granted, when we assumed we were healthy and most people we came across were in the same boat? That time passed when I was thirty seven. I still miss it.
Interestingly enough (or at least interesting to me) my mother, in her early sixties, did, actually, start to lose her mind. After decades of seeming competence and optimism, she descended into a pit of depression and alcoholism that lasted more than two decades. She has since come out of it, but very much the worse for wear. It’s not surprising that as I head towards this time in my life, I can’t help but see her as a warning. Not to do what she did. But, in any case, she was on a different time frame, similar to most of my parents’ generation. She was married at 23, had had her two kids by 28. She wasn’t really caught in the sandwich. My brother and I were out of the house right after college and, except for my brother’s two year graduate school program, pretty much financially independent not long after that. They helped us but they didn’t support us. More than that, we were emotionally independent of them in a way that my children, and the children of all of my friends, are not. And my mother’s parents were both dead by the time she was fifty. In fact, by the time both my parents were fifty-two (they are the same age), all four of my grandparents were gone. And even before they died, my parents, for many reasons, were not heavily involved with their care. They lived across the country and for the most part their siblings were doing the day to day, and it wasn’t even all that much. So, basically at fifty-two, my parents, still young and active, had minimal burdens on them in terms of both their own parents and children. My father continued to work with a very flexible schedule, my mother went back to school and started a new career, they went on barge trips down the Seine with eight other similarly unencumbered friends. They gave and attended a lot of parties. At fifty-two I had two teens at home, a husband who out of nowhere came down simultaneously with two auto immune illnesses, a mother across town who was drunk a great deal of the time, in and out of rehabs and emergency rooms, a father who was struggling with his own very serious health problems but mostly at that point just miserable being married to my mother. I went along to a lot of doctor appointments and I took my dad out to a lot of sad lunches. I didn’t give a lot of parties.
Lest you think I am asking for sympathy, I really am not. And I am not, for a moment, suggesting that those of us who have already lost our parents, are not pressed in by them at the top, are luckier, or are having an easier time of it. Some of my friends have gone through it, it’s a unique and usually unpredictable nightmare, and I can only imagine what it will be like to watch my parents die. Even “good” deaths (and I do believe there is such a thing) seem to leave them feeling lonely in a way that I don’t think I yet fully understand. And I know it’s coming soon, and that is one of the many burdens of this time. And I am not even going to get into the fact that the world is literally a big hot mess. I am at the moment only telling my story because it is the one I know best. While I will sometimes use different names and details to protect privacy, I will tell some of my friend’s stories, many of them are doozies.
So, here’s my theory. We are not the “sandwich generation,” we are in a Panini press. We are not just sandwiched, we are pressed, crunched. We can’t breathe. I am paraphrasing, but the Dali Lama said something like this about human suffering–“How can we be expected to care for others if we do not care for ourselves?” Excuse me, but what does he know? He doesn’t have demented parents who call him up from Beverly Hills thinking they have Ebola (this seriously happened to me last winter), or teenagers who have two fender benders in the same day. But, okay, he definitely has his own tragedy credentials….and he really is on to something. But, flipping this idea slightly, if we need to find a way to take care of ourselves, maybe some of that can be helped by also taking care of each other? Not in a way where it adds to our load , in a way where it lessens it. I am hoping that perhaps this website and blog can be a place where we come to vent, to support, to advise. Because I sure am up for advice. And to share resources, because it’s not fair that any of us has to start at ground zero when, for instance, your mother gets a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. As common a story as that is fast becoming, it still sends you tumbling backwards when it happens to YOU. And you don’t need to be in the Panini press to hang out here. Some of you are actually in a “half press,” challenged by caregiving of just parents or just children or just a spouse or a partner or a friend, and I hesitate to use the word “just.” And I will certainly explore other subjects that are related to the press but aren’t necessarily directly about it, musings about this time of life. You also don’t necessarily need to be female, although most of us in the press, who are pressed in by life, specifically by caregiving, well, we tend to be women.
But I know that this time of life does have its’ sweetness–so much of it is light, it isn’t all dark. Some of us, for instance, are having grandchildren! Some are starting new careers or vocations or going back to school or discovering or reconnecting with new passions or hobbies. Perhaps we are volunteering in new and meaningful ways, or traveling as travelers rather than tourists. Some of us are (gulp!) dating! I want to hear from those of you who are having all of these kinds of experiences. I want to hear from those of you who are not only being squeezed by the press but also those who are doing ok and even those who are thriving in it. Because I have a feeling you are all out there. So feel free to give a holler.