The Sandwiched Generation

It has happened to us… a bit too soon I might add. We have become part of the sandwich.

As a pastor I am terribly aware of the “sandwich generation.” That is, those folks who are mentioned in articles and sermons and commercials, who are in the middle of raising their young children and caring for ailing loved ones. In my few years as a hospice chaplain I was poignantly aware of this issue, caring for and praying with families who struggled between visiting newly born grandchildren and sorting through mom’s cancer medication. The strain is excruciating – a bit like the medieval torture where a criminal’s four limbs were tied to four horses and sent off in different directions. Okay – a bit graphic, but still… To be torn between two loves – the love for our parents who raised us and cared for us through scraped knees and hockey tournaments (which can be terribly complicated), and the love for our children and our children’s children (which is in some ways more pure and full of longing.)

As my husband spends the next week out of state caring for his father who has been in the hospital, we find ourselves squeezed between the needs of our parent and the needs of our young children. His dad is still very young – but this illness has been surprising and more intense than we could ever have imagined. The blessing is that we all expect a full recovery (doctor’s included), but we are aware that the journey to that recovery will be long and arduous, and require a decent amount of care. Out of this experience, we have gained a new empathy for those who are trying to balance the push and pull of this sandwiched lifestyle – how to prioritize, how to make choices between two people you love, two families who need you, two sets of circumstances each of which will suffer for your missing presence.

There is no clear path. There is no way to make an equal choice, no way to compare a beloved parent to a beloved child. There is also no family that is the same. While one family can easily share the load between many members, other families have fewer hands to help, or have family dynamics that prevent people from being supportive through it all. What may seem an easy solution for your family may be totally unworkable for mine. We do the best that we can. We cobble together what we need to stay afloat and offer what we can to be of assistance to the people we love. Sometimes that is a little, sometimes it is more than we even knew we had. And so it goes. Life is always a balance and this is no different, although the balance becomes weightier and more challenging to get right.

As we learn our way through this process we are learning new skills – how to have difficult conversations with family members. How to assert ourselves from a long distance (with doctors, family, friends) to get information, assistance, clarification. (carefully, cautiously…) What documents our parents should have in place and where they keep them. And the sticky wicket of family finances. None of this is easy, none of it is enjoyable. But it is the nitty gritty of “family,” and in some ways it is the absolutely essential lesson of what it takes to be in real relationship with one another through whatever bumps we hit along the way.

Through it all the thing that comes to mind most is this ethereal and changing thing called “community.” The concentric circles that surround us and spin outward seem to tighten around us in times such as these. People from our past suddenly stop by with soup or send an email with a word of prayer. This is such a blessing. As I have mentioned before we have learned firsthand the cultural shift away from community – as our generation tends to move often and live far from the town or city of our youth, it is harder and harder to maneuver through family crises or illness. The help that is offered makes it easier to choose both our children AND our parents in times such as these.

So I wonder – how do others of you “sandwiched generation” make your way through these crises? I wonder if more people are choosing to move back “home” so that they live closer to family? I wonder if anyone uses services that have helped them (we have found a great resource in www.caringbridg.org to keep family and friends informed)? I’ve also heard of patient advocate services that can be hired to help take care of mom or dad – does anyone use those? How do you make these choices that are so hard?

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