“Sandwich” used to be a lunch item I grew up on (peanut butter and mayonnaise – yes, you read it correctly… but that is another story for another time.) About five years ago it started taking on a new meaning. I became part of the sandwich generation. As one website defines, The Sandwich Generation refers to a generation of adults who care for their aging parents, while simultaneously supporting their own children. It is estimated that one in eight Americans aged 40 to 60 are currently a part of the sandwich generation (1). I hypothesize that this statistic is measurably higher here in the Bay Area. So, if you are not a “member”, chances are you know someone who is.
Two life changing events happened in 2007. My daughter was born and my mother experienced a mental breakdown. As I saw a personality take form in my daughter, I saw my mother’s personality wither away. Were there warning signs with my Mom? In hindsight, yes, of course. She experienced some big life triggers. But I had a two-year-old at home and another on the way.
It has been a roller coaster of emotions and energy. About a year into my mother’s illness, we (my sister and I) had to quickly find her a new living situation. While my sister and I researched assisted living facilities, our Mother spent time between our two homes. I remember one day when my mom was staying at my house. My son and husband were across the street at the park. I told my mom I was going to take Grace on a run and I would have my cell phone with me. Well, as I pushed the jog stroller around the last corner, I stopped in my tracks. Out in front of our house were an ambulance, fire truck, and two police cars. You see, my mom kept dialing 911 and hanging up. You might ask why but you won’t get a rational answer because my mom wasn’t rational. Call it a warped cry for help if you like. While every day was not this dramatic it does give you a sense of the emotional strain.
Other things we have dealt with:
A doctor telling me my Mom had six more months to live
A call from the assisted living facility saying my Mom is kicked out for hitting another resident
Visiting our Mother in the psychiatric ward at Stanford then having to come home and “keep it all together” for the family
My relationship with my Mother has challenges. There are many times when I find myself having to treat her like a child. I will say something to my mom and think, “Wow, sounds like something I would say to my five year old.” The problem is that I don’t have “parental control” over my Mom. I can’t take away a privilege when she makes bad decisions. My mother has a mind of her own and she is not shy about pulling out the “I am the parent” card with me.
Around the same time my mother’s mental illness significantly improved, she was diagnosed with dementia. While the dementia has its challenges, it is a blessing to see my mom free of her mental illness. My mother is relatively happy. Things are more stable. We don’t get the calls at all hours about one crisis or another. My mother’s care still takes a lot of time. Logistically one doctor’s appointment (which either my sister or I must attend due to my mother’s dementia) can take three to four hours.
How do I make it work?
Sheer Willpower. Well, on one basic level, you do what you have to do for family. Each of us has much more in us than we may think.
Get Help. My partnership with my sister is invaluable. I don’t think we could do this alone and still keep it together. We split up responsibilities and help each other when one needs a break.
Count blessings. My mother’s financial situation is stable which is a huge relief.
Set Boundaries. Determine your important boundaries and protect them no matter what. For instance, as much as I love my mom, I would not have her move into my house. Yes, people may judge me negatively for that but I had to learn to let that energy go.
Time is limited. Try to remember that the period is time-limited. View the time as a stage of growth and development in the life cycle.
Last, but not least, some days I feel it isn’t working and I can’t do it. There are times when I want to explode. And that is ok too.
Here is a website offering information and resources:
It has been several years since I wrote this article so I thought it would be helpful to give you an update. First and foremost, the six-month diagnosis was obviously wrong. My mother is doing relatively well. She is still in the same assisted living facility. She has made many friends and is comfortable there. I am thankful for that. The drama has gone away and we are blessed with stability. She does show signs of dementia but it is manageable for now.
I have a very different relationship with my Mom since her illness. While the love is still there, it is much more transactional. We talk about doctors’ appointment, trips to CVS, and running out of cotton balls. I miss the old Mom but am working on coming to terms with the effects of the aging process. It’s not easy. This trickles down to my Mom’s relationship with my children. They “visit” Grammy but the experience is not, what you might say, a bonding one. I grieve for what could have been but at the same time count my blessings for what I have.