The year my first daughter was born, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Now, you might think this would come as a tragic shock, but it wasn’t. My mother, a liberated woman with a bohemian streak, had me at 42, which was pretty rare for the 1970s. I’d anticipated health problems such as these as she entered her seventies, and actually discussed it with my husband before it was all spelled out by her doctor, written on a prescription pad. And as her only child, I’d been caring for her for years already, helping her with shopping, with her paperwork, moving to a new apartment, etcetera. No, the shocking part about her diagnosis was that she was no longer my top priority. The adorable, bald little suckling baby bjorned to my body (let’s just make bjorn a verb, ladies) was my primary focus and concern.
This is the rub of the Sandwich Generation – those of us who have kids in our thirties or early forties, also have parents entering the health-minefield of their seventies and eighties. We are literally caught in the middle, changing two sets of diapers; trying to keep the young and old in our family comfortable and well. One little dependent growing upward every day, the other dependent declining every day. It is a rough position to be in. That said, serving those you love is always a privilege. I’d like to think I’ve learned a few things in the last five years in the Sandwich to share with other women going though a similar experience. Below are some of my tips for surviving the Sandwich Years with aplomb, with your sanity and false-eyelashes intact.
Tip #1: Hire a Therapist
Now, there are a lot of books out there attempting to aide the Sandwich Generation in their position as dual caretakers, but it’s never going to be as good as a real human to lean on and hash out your issues. My own experience is that it’s healthier to lean on a professional and bitch to them on a weekly basis than use your spouse as your sole sounding board. You need your spouse to be there for you as a fun playmate and your best friend. Let the therapist be your giver of undivided attention and kleenex. My therapist was a life-saver in these early days of parenthood and elder-care. In fact, she is a contributor to my confidence to start my own creative business in the middle of all this family flux.
Tip #2: Get Help For The Aging Parent
If you possibly can afford it, carve out a weekly caretaker as part of your budget for your elderly parent. For me, this was a massive benefit for a fairly minimal cost ($350 per month for a one hour visit each week, plus doctors appointments). There had been a crazed period early on when I’d be filling my mom’s pill box weekly at her independent living facility, taking her to doctor’s appointments, and trying to time this around the baby’s nap times, pumping, pediatrician appointments, and cooking/regular household stuff. Not only was it just not sustainable, I looked like a cavewoman in faded yoga pants with crazy dark-encircled eyes. I did not feel like myself. It would not be a stretch to think my husband might describe me as “bitchy” in this period. Justifiably so: when you are caring for everyone else without help, you risk neglecting yourself. Then, magically as if overnight, a woman named Julie came on the scene. Julie is an Elder Care Specialist and Advocate, so she handles crises (hospital liaison, medicines administration, doctors appointments, general companionship) but is also a really laid back and fun woman. I felt like I had a wise older sister to help with my mother: someone responsible who “got it.” It was such a huge relief. I have heard from friends that the U.S. Government through Medicare also offers services for families in this arena: the term is called a Home Health Aide. But Julie was superb in that she showed up the day after I hired her, no government red tape, no hassle. She still sees my mom every week, even if nothing is wrong. Hiring Julie was also a contributing factor in me feeling able to start my own business, knowing my mom had other people to lean on besides me.
Tip #3: When the Time Comes, Get Quality Assisted Living for your Elder
I learned the hard way that I was late getting my mom into an Assisted Living building. She had a stroke in her Independent Living facility, and there was nobody there monitoring residents who could check in on her when it happened. She had the wherewithal to pick up the phone, and in slurred speech, tell me what she was feeling. From that incident on, we moved her to Assisted Living. We’ve all been very happy with the transition into a full-on Assisted Living facility. They do the meals, check in on her, administer the meds, provide activities. It’s all inclusive. It’s also insanely expensive. But for me, it was crucial given my new work-schedule, wanting a second child, and having peace of mind knowing that she was in good hands.
Tip #4: Mindset Matters
Knowing you cannot be Superwoman really does help bring you back from the brink of meltdown. So too does realizing the power of delegating. If your aging parent has friends, ask them to pitch in and help. If you have siblings or relatives nearby, ask them too. You’d be surprised how many people will come out of the woodwork to help if you just ask. Knowing you cannot be perfect allows for those days when your kids are not napping, mom missed her meds, your client hates your design and you yelled at your husband. It’s going to happen. How you deal with it is under your control: if you keep a sense of humor about life, you can conquer most anything. As capable as I know I am, I can also be a total blonde airhead. Knowing this allows me room to be human and flawed and rebound from a bad day. I am a loving, offbeat, passionate, yet flawed human. (Oh, and don’t compare yourself to others. What they put forth is just what they “want” you to think. Nooooobody is perfect.)
Tip #5: Relish in your Kids
This should probably be the top of the list. Children can get the short end of the stick in the Sandwich Generation scenario. It’s hard to peacefully watch your children frolic in the park when you know that Grandma needs help too and you’re making her wait. But when you step back from the present moment, it’s quite clear that a child’s future rests in the parent’s hands: every book you read, trip to the park you make and every time you listen carefully to their stories, it’s fuel for their souls. It will be with them for a lifetime. As rough as this sounds, investing in the future (children) is always paramount. My mom gave me that attention when I was a child, so I feel it’s my duty to do so for my own children. Remember to honor the past (your ailing parent), but let your kids take precedence in your planning. Focusing too much on what’s falling apart (a sick parent) is going to bring you down. Let your kids cheer you up. Take them somewhere weird. Be silly with them and roll around on the floor. Let them make a mess. They are much your joy as your responsibility.
Tip #6: Prioritize Your Own Passions
I founded my stationery company Vigilante Paper in the middle of all this Sandwich Generation chaos. It was part of a self-preservation effort to make sure that I was getting to do something meaningful (i.e. drawing, being a commercial artist) that did not involve caring for little people or old people. I’m not a particularly athletic person, or a volunteer-hound, but I have seen other women get nourished in ways other than starting a business that involved time away from dependents. Building my business was dedicated, carved-out time for me. I’d crank the White Stripes in my headphones and get to work making art. It was a hugely restorative move for me to start my own business. I was no longer defined by my role as caretaker. It also probably saved me from being driven to drink!
Lastly on this topic of self-preservation, it helped me to make a list of ten things that make me happy and try to do them each week. They were often small mundane things, like (1) buy Mexican limes at the grocery (2) take a bubble bath or (3) buy a new album.
Tip #7: Don’t Forget about Your Partner
With all this stuff on the plate of a Sandwich Generation mom, something has to be said for the impact all this has on the spouse of this overstretched person. My husband was, and is immensely supportive of me. He is a big Olivia fan. I definitely would not be where I am without him. He is no saint, but he is a damn good daddy and best friend. That’s what you really need your partner to be: someone to play and goof around with and believe in you. Your marriage is going to be strained by these years in the sandwich and you’d better know how to laugh your derriere off. It’s not really in my nature to compartmentalize, but my husband has taught me how to work on it. It’s a great tool to have in your belt when you’ve had a hard day. Once the kids are in bed, throw off your heels, pour a glass of wine, and take time to enjoy your partner. No matter how brutal the day was. Because this is it. This is your life! Don’t be defined by the clay you’re thrown, be defined by how you mold it.