This week has been a doozy. While dancing at a wedding, I broke my foot. Nothing special there; apparently, it is called a “dancer’s fracture.” (Side lesson to be learned: keep your heels on because flip flops give no protection against missteps.) My crew took care of me with ice and Advil, and we all finished the night still smiling and laughing. I’m now in a fashionable boot hobbling around for the next 4-6 weeks.
Normally, my paramedic husband would have swooped in and triaged my injury. But, he was on Daddy Duty at home. We were supposed to sneak away for our first weekend, child free in four years. Unfortunately, we were unable to import our go-to babysitter, my mother. She was sidelined due to a family history of high blood pressure that decided that this very weekend was the one that no medication or exercise could decrease to an acceptable level for airline travel.
So, I’m hobble-chasing my toddler in between check-up calls to my mother. Hold your applause and sighs, my beloved readers. This snapshot of caring for a child AND a parent has become common place. Welcome to the Sandwich Generation!
I cannot take credit for the term, “sandwich generation.” A social worker named Dorothy Miller first used this moniker to describe women in their late 30’s and early 40’s who were taking care of aging parents at the same time they were raising younger children. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2013 discovered that 15% of people from ages 40-59 provide some financial support to an aging parent and a grown child. My concern, and newest focus for my private family counseling, is for the 38% of those same men and women whose grown children and parents rely on them for emotional support. When gifted with the opportunity to provide intergenerational counseling, here are some of the key concepts I hope I leave behind:
- The Earlier, The Better: Conversations about aging have a terrible reputation for being morose and pessimistic. That is because we all wait too late to talk about any life change until we are in reactionary mode. Flip the switch! Be proactive by talking to aging parents before they are elderly. Don’t waste time talking about living wills or advanced directives, either. Spend every conversation laughing and smiling about the quality of life your parents have developed and take mental notes (if not physical notes) about how to preserve that quality of life. There is a fantastic card game created to start the discussion by the non-profit organization, Aging With Dignity, perfect for a family game night. I played it with my husband (similar to a game of Go Fish) and learned his top priority for aging is to be kept clean. It’s more important to him than trusting doctors or being with friends. He wants to be clean so he can always be touched. Lesson learned: 50 years (I hope) before this becomes a medical directive, I spend more time holding his hand, rubbing his arm…and I’m teaching our son that newfound family value by modeling what makes Daddy feel loved. How’s that for intergenerational counseling?
- The Answer to Every “Why” Is “Once Upon a Time”: There are so many questions that crop up when one generation sits with another. Often, it is the younger parent asking why their childhood turned out a certain way in the hopes of not repeating the outcome for their child. (Give it a minute — intergenerational counseling is only complicated when I try to explain it in the abstract.) These questions get more uncomfortable
when the plans for an aging parent are being discussed. Why do you want to stay at home? Why don’t you want to give up your driver’s license? The answer is in a memory from your parent’s childhood or experience about how it feels when they saw others growing old. Get used to listening to “why” instead of judging it; within the silence of listening comes the calm of understanding.
- We Are Family…Still!: If you aren’t singing the Sister Sledge song now, you should be. And, pay attention to the lyrics. The family dynamics that existed when you were growing up, my brother is the favorite, Mom bakes to avoid conflict, Dad defers his opinions to Mom, etc., will return with renewed fervor when Mom and Dad need more help. It doesn’t matter which child lives closest or knows more about the family medical history. The way your family of origin was set up will dictate the dynamics of how caring for aging parents play out now.
Spark Note Summary
Intergenerational counseling is more than legal rights and medical decisions for your parent and more than detailed educational planning for your child. Talking about the quality of life you want as an aging adult sets up the values that will become the legacy for your child to inherit. Don’t BE a peanut butter and jelly sandwich…MAKE one for yourself…and your mom and teach your son to make one for you….and your husband…