While walking the dogs I ran into a neighbor who had recently brought her mother to live with her. I asked her how she was doing. Between homeschooling her ten year old and caring for her mom who was beginning to physically decline; a mixture of emotions, negative thoughts, mental and physical exhaustion came forth like hot, red and black lava pouring onto the sidewalk and neighborhood.
In those few moments I found myself transported back 25 years when I too found myself in a similar position in my life. This position even has a name.
It is called the “Sandwich Generation” and is defined as “a generation of people, typically in their thirties or forties, responsible for bringing up their own children while caring for their aging parents.” At the time, I did not know it had a name but I sure could feel it. I felt pressed and perplexed, inept and inferior, in demand and yet invisible – all at the same time.
I was barely 30, my daughter Francesca was 3. My mother was 58 when she had reconstruction of her breast following a radical mastectomy for cancer. In a series of three surgeries, I had just brought her home from the second surgery where they removed the muscle from her back and placed it on the chest wall. Being in extreme pain, I brought her to my home to convalesce for a day or two. That evening my 3 year old daughter developed a fever, chills, and malaise. I was running between the guest room and my daughter’s room until, exhausted, I moved them both into my husband and my bed. I knew I was “Sandwiched” when my mother was moaning in excruciating pain and my daughter began talking incoherently from the fever. I quickly ran a tepid bath and submerged Francesca’s body in it to break the 104 temperature. Not an easy task as she was crying, screaming and begging me to stop as she tried to claw her way out of the tub. Both my mom and daughter recovered and healed from their respective hurts, but I was left feeling like a used rag having soaked up all the tears, pain, fever, chills, and malaise. I was worn and torn.
Parenting a child while becoming a parent to your parent is like being a PB & J sandwich. The PB&J (you) oozing out between two pieces of homemade bread you love (Parent & Child). It holds the bread together, but it’s oh so sticky and messy. The good news is that it is survivable with some kitchen utensils to help you make that sandwich a little less messy.
- Be open and honest about how much you can handle. Know your limitations. Recognizing the early signs of stress and depression can help you navigate this period.
- Ask for help. Enlist family, friends, and local agencies to help. Hire a person to clean house, run errands or cut the lawn. It is in the best interest of both caregiver and parent to acknowledge when help is needed.
- Take some time for yourself. This is difficult to do when work, carpools, schedules, home care, children’s after school programs vie for your time. Taking time doing what energizes you and gives you meaning will help you run the marathon that is part of being in the “Sandwich Generation”.
- Look for the positive that is in your life and be thankful for it. A bird singing the opening of a new day, your husband bringing take out home for dinner so you don’t have to cook. Look for blessings amid the stressing.
- Pay attention to your own health needs. You don’t want to be the person in the TV ad: “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” Instead of the aging parent, you will be the one that has fallen and needs repair. If we do not care for our own body and our own life, we cannot possibly be there to help care for our aging parents.
- Don’t be embarrassed to admit you feel stressed or even depressed while being sandwiched. Know the signs of depression: sadness that lasts for weeks at a time, loss of interest or pleasure in activities that once gave you pleasure, change in weight, difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much, energy loss, feelings of worthlessness, and thoughts of death or suicide.
- If you do feel overwhelmed, stressed or depressed, talk to a health care provider.
- Accept what is but know it will not always be. This time will pass.
I didn’t know all these things 25 years ago. I wish I had. Oh, I was an efficient caregiver but one that was a shadow of the warm and caring daughter I wanted to be. I was fried, dried, and empty. I kept my feelings bottled up for fear that if I took off the cap, my insides would pour out in tears, anger, and frustration and I would never get the cap back on. My mother’s unwillingness to let others help her and my own misdirected sense of guilt and obligation, made us miss moments of sharing with too many words left unsaid. Had I known then what I know now, I would have done things differently.
But I know these things now. And looking back, I could see God was working for good. Not just for me but for the good of others. I believe this was the process or journey that God wanted me to experience so that He could use me for just such a time as this. Twenty five years later, walking the dogs, and talking to a neighbor who was oozing PB&J while sandwiched between two beautiful pieces of bread.
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to His purpose.” Romans 8:26 (NIV)
Have you ever felt like a PB&J Sandwich? How did you make it through? Was there one thing or person that helped you? Or are you still going through it? What one thing would help make you feel less squeezed, less worn, torn, and oozing? Please share in the comments section how you survived or are surviving the “Sandwich Generation”.