What does a 33-year-old writer know about sandwich generation stress?
I wondered if readers asked themselves that question after reading my first post.
I could say I've been an avid observer of people and relationships from a very young age, but I'm still not a sandwich generation caregiver or a baby boomer -- and I'm at least old enough to know that advice from people who haven't "been there" isn't always graciously received.
So this time, I'm going to give advice from my perspective, as the child of a sandwich generation caregiver and baby boomers.
My Side of the Story
When my grandfather could no longer walk and had difficulty feeding and dressing himself, decisions had to be made.
In a family as large and close-knit as ours, there were lots of opinions about what needed to be done. There were many people who wanted to help the man we all loved and looked up to, wanted to do something. But as Alzheimer's complicates things, there were no simple solutions. It wasn't as easy as delegating chores or deciding on chicken or beef for dinner. We all wanted the best for him but struggled with knowing how to make that happen, with knowing what we could do to make him feel as comfortable as possible as his body and mind betrayed him.
I used to think that the "adults" (my mother, her brothers, my grandmother) didn't want to burden us "kids" with these weighty issues. I used to think that they were grasping for some kind of control even as the path seemed to be crumbling beneath their feet. In some families, that may be true, and it's probably a normal and natural response. But now that I think of it, caregivers don't have much time to ponder "how can we get the kids involved?" when they're just trying to figure out "how are we going to provide for his daily needs and stay afloat?"
Emotional Support Helps
Emotional support for the caregiver(s) is crucial. Even though I always wanted to do more, just talking (or listening) to my mother and grandmother as they worked through their emotions about Grandpa's illness was something.
Dale Carter agrees. When her mother had a medical emergency that required a temporary move to Maryland from her Indiana home, Carter reached out to her three grown children. "We would talk daily over the phone, and they would give me their feedback. Sometimes the most important thing they said to me was, 'Mom, you are helping your mother so much.' To hear that when everything else seemed to be in chaos kept me going," said Carter, who has since started her own business, TransitionAgingParents.com, a resource for adult children turned caregivers.
Working with What You Have (or From Where You Are)
Sometimes, reaching out for help is a logistical issue. Ellen Hahn lives in Kentucky, and her father is in a nursing home in rural Pennsylvania. Hahn's sister, who lives locally, handles the day-to-day responsibilities regarding their dad's care. Hahn would like to do more to help, but the distance makes it difficult. "I think sometimes she [my sister] doesn't ask for help because she's there and in the midst of it, and it's just easier to do it yourself. It's hard to know what the person needs from afar if you can't 'see' her on a regular basis," said Hahn.
As communication between healthcare providers and family members is often less than ideal, Ellen found a way to be helpful even from afar. "To take pressure off my sister, I try to call my dad's caregivers regularly to check in and 'connect the dots,' to make sure we're all communicating as well as we can."
Where Caregiving Ends and Family Values Begin
Some families supporting an aging loved one just work well together. "When my parents got too old to do their own lawn and snow maintenance, I had my son do it for them. They insisted on paying him, and I allowed that," Debra Lee Policelli, of Northeastern Pennsylvania, said. "My daughter also went over to help with any cleaning jobs that my mother couldn't handle alone. My husband, sisters, and brothers-in-law also did many things to help."
Policelli knows this is rare, but she also knows the source: "I believe my family is particularly fortunate in that we all communicate our feelings with each other concerning my mom. Emotionally, we support our children when they get sad about her, and they support us when we are weary. The strength we all need seems to get passed around between us. And we all know that the strength we have came from my Mom."
Other families are not as fortunate. Says Sharon Carp Levy, a sandwich caregiver in Virginia, "Sadly, my father is not uppermost in my children's or grandchildren's minds. I have to constantly remind them to call him from time to time. They will ask me how he is -- and I tell them -- but quickly add, 'Why don't you call him? He would love to hear from you!' "
Forget About Age: It's All About Relationships
Irene Noraas was 29 when she became her father's primary caregiver, and she was blown away by the special relationship that developed between her dad and her 15-year-old nephew. The amazing combination of his "unlimited amounts of patience and teenage boy strength" was an added perk, she says.
"I think the unique quality that a grandchild brings is that while the elder may be disabled, he still feels like he has authority over 'children' and is better able to tell them what they need to do and how to do it. Also, younger people are less likely to have it in their mind that they want to fix something, and the older/sick person doesn't feel funny about being so specific in their demands."
Need Help? Just Ask
Everyone has something to give. No matter what caregiving shoes you're in, find a way to embrace and engage the strengths within your family circle, and don't be afraid to put the kids to work.
Overwhelmed about where to begin? Check out SeniorsforLiving.com's Caregiving Resource Guide.
This post was modified from an earlier published version.