This is the first in a series of essays about being the thinly stretched lunchmeat of the so-called “sandwich generation,” the people who care for their aging parents while supporting their own children. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, “nearly half of adults in their 40s and 50s have a parent age 65 or older and are either raising a young child or financially supporting a grown child.” Are you one of them? Do you want to pull your hair and/or run away? Have best practices to share? Join the conversation.
My parents, born in the early 40s, are the children of WWII veterans. My grandparents were the men and women of the “Greatest Generation,” so named by journalist Tom Brokaw, in his book of the same name. The Greatest Generation gave birth to the Boomers, my parents, war babies, and they in turn gave birth to my kind, Generation X, children of the late 60s and early 70s, so named for our apathy and general thumb-up-own-own-butts navel gazing narcissism which was blamed on who else? but our privileged, every-one’s-a-winner! Botox-discovering, gym-membership-having, aging-is-a-choice, when I am an old woman I will wear purple, affluenza-suffering parents.
Together, Boomer parents and their Generation X-er kids generally partied through the 80s and 90s. It was suggested as a goal that parents be their kids’ best friends. It was suggested that above all else what must be nurtured was a strong sense of self. Self-esteem was a fruit that could easily bruise, it must be nurtured in a hothouse of exclamatory sentences like, “Well done, son! Daddy’s so proud of you! You looked in the general direction of that soccer ball. Next time you might kick it!”
My grandparents got old. Their aging was a simple sentence. It wasn’t a question. Or a long-form essay in The New Yorker. Or a memoir. There were not whole sections in the library devoted to “Self Across The Lifespan.” My grandmother wouldn’t have been caught dead in such a section, anyway.
She was allowed to get big beefy old-country grandma forearms. After being (by all accounts, and there are photographs to prove it) a total dish, a hot tomato, for 40 plus years, she was was allowed to go gentle into that good night in her 60s in a shapeless muumuu (and she had several of these, because her son, my uncle, lived in Hawaii).
But my mom, in her 70s, has to be in an Eileen Fisher pants suit. It’s expected that she not go to seed, that she look proper, dishy even. Short skirts? Thin wrists? All her friends do. And I have to hand it to them, these ladies with trainers, and hairdressers, and vim and vigor despite their inevitable decline, they look great though they take many pills for many conditions. But they’re old.
Even though We’re All Living Longer, the truth of that splendid headline is that we’re living longer sicker. The chances that you are caring for not just an aged parent, but an aged and chronically ill one are high. Chances are you will need to research homes, the retirement kind, the kind followed by the words “for the elderly” because you will not be able to shoulder the responsibility for the entirety of their care. Aging longer, sicker is expensive.
I’m still getting used to this. I have an old mother, and an old father, and it follows (by way of physics and higher math) that I am middle aged.
Ha! Plot twist! My parents, household gods on whom I have relied for so long (having had the typical Gen X extended adolescence with its de rigeur “Seattle period”) now need me. Nothing grows you up faster or more profoundly than taking care of your parents. Not even having children.
Of course I invited them to live with me. Of course. Who wouldn’t? Someone smart. Someone who had done their psychological homework and “done the work” of “getting over” the things that galled me in my childhood, the old hurts, the wrong camp, the wrong color Benetton sweatshirt, the feeling that that even now, they have an unsaid but deep-seated preference for my sister, etc.
Intergenerational homes haven’t been the standard in many generations, and we’ve fallen out of practice, we’ve gotten bad at it. All the signs were there, but did I heed them? I did not.
So when my parents said their house on the Eastern Shore with the pool and the garden and the boats was getting to be too much for them, I said, Sell it, downsize, it’s that time in your life for a new adventure. The new adventure being my guest room. Who on earth would take you up on that?
That they did just proves we were all in stunted state of denial. Or hope. The kind of hope that sends people out for those cheesy glitter-italic Hallmark cards on Mother’s Day. You know the ones I’m talking about. You want things to be like that. Gauzy. You want to feel like that. Like unicorns and harmony are among the wildflowers in your bosom. And the truth is sometimes we do feel like singing. But not all the time.
My parents said they were most excited about “being nearer.” Nearer physically, closer emotionally. These things sound like good things, things you should want, and especially in those relationships in which you’re experiencing some distance. But distance also makes the heart grow fonder. Right? When my parents experienced what it was like to be around “the grandkids” in their 24/7 lost library book the dog needs to go out hey mom she has the bigger slice of birthday cake did you do your math homework? whiney yell-y I SAID THE GODDAMN DOG NEEDS TO OUT! non-pink-tinted glasses detail of forgetting the years-long pile of laundry that was raising my sister and me, they were like, Holy crap. But my parents are polite and don’t talk like this. I do.
It was like they were trying to have a tea party in a bomb crater. The bomb crater being my so called life. “How do you do it, Elizabeth?” my mom asked me, genuinely incredulous. By which she meant, How on earth are your dad and I going to fit in our afternoon nap in this war zone?
Also, how the heck did she do it? And — drumroll please — she didn’t even have the additional stressor of her parents coming to live with her, throwing what can only be called a well-meaning wrench into the the works.
Then she said, “I have just enough energy to fold the laundry. Can I fold the laundry?” I would have stopped any other guest from such a task, shooing them out of the kitchen with a Don’t be silly! Stop that! Just relax! But I handed her a sock, “Can you find the other one?” I said. Together we folded the kids’ uniforms into tight little packages the Greatest Generation would have been proud of.