What Being Caught in the Middle of the Sandwich Generation Means Now
Taking care of everyone in the family requires better planning during COVID-19.
Illustration 58342869 © Olha Primovich Hrabar | Dreamstime.com
Her green eyes followed me as I paced the hospital room with the phone against my ear, talking to the doctor. She was quiet and frightened: a fragile child wearing a scratchy blue gown. Her tousled blonde hair and pale face peeked out above the sheets; the large bed swallowed her tiny frame.
“I’m cold,” she said in a thin voice, afraid to admit this because I’d begged her to bring a sweater from home.
“When will you learn to listen to your mother,” I chided her, mimicking the sing-song voice I’d heard for years and was now repeating back to her.
But, I wasn’t her mother.
She was mine.
When she nodded off, I watched over her protectively — she looked so peaceful, despite the pain in her broken hip. I thought about the many nights I’d stared at my children while they slept.
So here I am. I’ve become a statistic. At my age, my mother was already a Grandma; my daughter still had a great-grandmother. But we are the women who waited to have children; we’re still mothering in middle age. Worrying and caretaking at both ends of our family. We are the sandwich generation.
I’d thought I’d reached the end of my mothering journey. Three adult children — two already working — and our youngest headed to college. I’d started congratulating myself for being at the finish line.
We were trying out the words “empty nesters” with friends and family. It rolled around our mouths pretty well.
We weren’t ready for around-the-world cruises, but we could see our future in the distance. My husband had started planning for his back nine — adding teaching to his repertoire, sustainable work for an entertainment executive. I was working in event production and ready to search for a full-time gig.
Then — in March — the pandemic shut the door on those dreams. Both of us watched work and money dry up. People we know got sick; some died. The house became our ship of safety.
Our adult kids returned home to their childhood bedrooms. We huddled together as our lives tilted sideways. We were bailing and pouring out the bad news daily. It was up to us — the parents — to keep everyone afloat. I told them this would make us resilient.
When grocery stores had limited supplies, I told them to remember how our family rationed during World War II. We reduced food waste and grew a garden.
When George Floyd was murdered, I told them to remember how our family helped create change in the Civil Rights era. We supported Black Lives Matter and began to unlearn our own racism together.
When the political theatre of the election escalated, I told them to remember their vote mattered. Their Great-Grandma had lived to 100 and voted for a woman. We all worked to become better activists.
When people in our community were suffering, we volunteered to help.
Every day, I reminded myself and them of our abundance, our privilege. We practiced gratitude and looked for silver linings. At what point will it become so hard to find them that our mouth will gape open, fish-like, and gasping when we try to say those words? Silver linings. Silver linings.
Like so many others, we had prom on our deck, held graduation in our front yard, and celebrated despite the challenges.
I wanted to be strong for my children, like my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Bold in the face of struggle.
I thought I was handling everything; I was the mainmast. The fulcrum holding up the sails in our boat.
And then my mother broke her hip.
She’d fallen on her way to the kitchen for a glass of water. Isn’t it always the way? The simplest things are not simple at 81. Still, I’d been visiting Florida and was with them, and then stayed for weeks to help — the good fortune of an unemployed person. But again, a silver lining — that damn idiom.
Every day I’m hearing stories of adults my age who don’t live near their parents but are making decisions about their aging or end-of-life care. The pandemic has made caretaking even more difficult as traveling turns visiting into a challenging procedure that includes quarantine, testing, and then social distancing to protect our oldest family members.
Last year, my father had a triple bypass to repair his ailing heart. We began listening more closely as friends shared their experiences with aging or dying parents or those who were stunned by a relative’s sudden death. Most of this happened before COVID-19, which has stripped away our normal responses for caretaking and grieving.
We wheeled Mom to the emergency room and said goodbye, knowing that COVID-19 would make it impossible to stay. As the glass doors slid closed, I thought about families across the world who said goodbye to their loved ones forever this way. I held onto my Dad’s arm as tears streamed down his face. I held back my own.
I compared it to standing at the door, saying goodbye to my children at school in those first years. I remember bravely waving, not wanting them to see my tears — that pain of separation again. The knowledge that time was drifting on, and there were places I couldn’t go.
Gratefully the rules in Florida had changed; we were able to visit. In the hospital room, I helped her out of bed and to the bathroom, told her to call me when she was finished. Do you see the parallels here?
At home, a kind man came to install safety-features around their house — we were now parent-proofing in the same way I did for my babies.
The middle stage of parenting. I hope I’m here for a while longer.
I flew home after six weeks of being away. Back to my own family. Still part of this one. The virus may have weakened us, but love is keeping us strong.
A few things I learned these past few weeks that I hope others will consider:
It’s never too early to discuss caregiving and end-of-life plans.
Having frank discussions about caregiving and end-of-life planning is so difficult but necessary, particularly during COVID. There are wonderful resources within AARP for family caregivers . My parents use a program called Everplans, which we reviewed and then found a few areas that needed to be updated.
It’s never too early to make your own plans, especially if you have young children.
I’m consistently amazed at friends who don’t have a will, trust, and advance directives. Make sure you and your spouse (or your ex) know where everything is located. If you have adult children, make sure they know where documents are stored. Anyone with young children should definitely assign a guardian. There are many inexpensive alternatives to hiring a lawyer. One company, KidProtectionPlan, has great resources.
Planning ahead is less emotional and expensive than waiting.
In some ways, I feel fortunate that this emotional experience happened while my parents are both still healthy. My mother will return to full health after months of rehab. They’re both terrific caretakers for each other. But, I’m more aware of what lies ahead and how to be better prepared for all of us.