Time For A Sandwich

I have joined the ranks of the sandwich generation, those who simultaneously serve as the primary caregivers for one or more dependent children and one or more dependent older relatives. Most of us are between the ages of 40 and 59.

The term is accurate, although not fully adequate. Of course, we are in between the two generations who depend on us for food, shelter, safety, clothing, transportation, entertainment and love. We feel squeezed — I’m reminded of my daughter pressing all the air out of the bread to flatten her cheese sandwich.

But the term doesn’t quite capture the enormity of the role. I think calling it the Primanti sandwich generation or, better yet, the Dagwood sandwich generation would be more appropriate. Dagwood’s sandwiches have multiple layers, are too big to possibly handle all at once, and tower over you, ready to topple at any moment. Yes, that sounds about right.

An article on the sandwich generation from A Woman’s Health website states “about 65 million people in the United States are serving as unpaid caregivers for a family member, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving. And about one-third of these are also raising children.” The majority of the other two-thirds have grown children, which still presents quite a squeeze considering the more active role parents are playing in supporting their grown children both financially and emotionally.

In my case, I take care of our 11-year-old daughter, Emma, and my husband’s 87-year-old mother, Jane, who has lived with us for about eight years. As difficult and unmanageable as it sometimes is, I am grateful to be able to care for my mother-in-law. She has been nothing but supportive of me since the day I became the daughter she never had. She took care of Emma three days a week from the time she was 2 months old till she went to preschool. When she first moved in with us, she did the laundry, cooked several days a week, did a lot of the grocery shopping and kept the kitchen and bathroom sparkling. What a blessing she was to this working mom!

It kind of creeps up on you, becoming a caregiver for a parent, just like the deficits in Jane’s activities of daily living crept up on her. Over the past three years, Jane’s health and mobility have declined significantly. When she could no longer make it to the basement, I took over the laundry. When she stopped driving, I did all the shopping. When addition and subtraction started giving her fits, I took over her checkbook. When she forgot to take her pills, I started managing her medications. She now needs all her meals brought to her and must have an escort even when she uses her walker.

The squeeze on me, my husband and daughter, has been tight, yet, miraculously, there’s still some give left in me (pun intended). Having only one child, I never tested the theory that your heart always has room to love another. But I can tell you, as Jane’s needs increase, my capacity to absorb new responsibilities has increased. When you love someone, you simply do what you have to do — not out of obligation but out of desire.

The hardest part is finding time to take care of the rest of my family, let alone myself. As I said last week, I live my life in triage, caring for the most pressing matters first. I am not high on that list. Sometimes I stay up too late because it’s the only “me” time I get. But if I don’t get my sleep, I get sick. Sometimes I don’t even find time to eat!

A recent survey of unpaid caregivers in Australia, the U.S. and several European countries by Merck found that of those surveyed, 50 percent felt their physical health had suffered.

No matter what kind of caregiver you are — parents included — we must remember to do as the flight attendants recommend: Apply your own oxygen mask before assisting others.

All of the sudden, I’m hungry for a sandwich.

Betsy Bethel is the Life editor and editor of OV Parent magazine. She can be reached at bbethel@theintelligencer.net.