Synopsis: For many in this generation, the boomer boom times of the nineties have become the malaise of the new millennium. Saddled with economic and caretaker responsibilities of elderly, ill, and dying parents and sometimes even relatives whom no one else will tend, those betwixed and between are taking care of everyone else, with not enough time or energy to enjoy their own lives. College kids are in school longer and with less opportunity once they graduate, expenses continue to mount. What was once thought of as retirement money now can mean breaking the bank and reaching underneath long loved mattresses to find the cash to support those younger and older. They are the sandwiched caretakers of their off spring and those from whom they have sprung.
THE SANDWICH GENERATION
MODERN FAMILY TIES
The Sandwich Generation is being squashed and squished, toasted, roasted, and eaten alive. Those in their mid-forties and fifties who once eagerly dreamed about freedom resulting from children going off to new lives have awakened to a rude surprise. Okay, so they anticipated crying and mourning their now empty nest, but they also believed they would survive and even thrive, eagerly availing themselves to hitherto untapped opportunities. Many held visions of economic and social freedom, perhaps with a dose of extra sexuality now that there would be no midnight knocks on the bedroom door. Shock has set in. Rather than relishing their anticipated freedom, they are now confronted with responsibilities they never considered - grown children living at home, parents in need of care, and education costs sky rocketing out of sight. Toss in the possibility of single parenting or loss of a job and dreamtime has become a nightmare. For many, the ties that bind have become knots too complex to unravel.
For many in this generation, the boomer boom times of the nineties have become the malaise of the new millennium. Saddled with economic and caretaker responsibilities of elderly, ill, and dying parents and sometimes even relatives whom no one else will tend, those betwixed and between are taking care of everyone else, with not enough time or energy to enjoy their own lives. College kids are in school longer and with less opportunity once they graduate, expenses continue to mount. What was once thought of as retirement money is now breaking the bank and taken from underneath long loved mattresses to be used for those younger and older. They are the sandwiched caretakers of their off spring and those from whom they have sprung.
The Sandwich Generation didn’t ask for this role. It’s part of the new family values. Midlife freedom has become a dream lost, snatched while they weren’t looking and without their permission. With an aging population and children maturing later in life, they find themselves squeezed from every direction. Most families are loving and loyal and do what needs to be done-but not without paying a high, and unexpected, price.
Nowadays, dying is neither simple nor easy. There are extensive life support systems and long-term care programs available, making illnesses that were once fatal now merely debilitating. Economic cutbacks have meant an extensive change in our medical system. Health care responsibilities that were once the province of professionals now are more often relegated to family caretakers. True, new medical advances also mean longer and often improved quality of life, but someone has to pay for those no longer working nor financially prepared for retirement. This is the struggle of the sandwich generation.
My second marriage was mid-life. Sure I knew my prince could sometimes be a frog, still I held wondrous fantasies of “doing this one right.” We would communicate with ease, take time to blend our respective offspring into a nuclear core, and of course, there would be plenty of time for great sex. Realty hit hard. Trips to exotic places were rapidly replaced by daily crisis phone calls relating to our children’s issues, illness, and death. Money gushed out at an alarming rate. Forget romance, just getting through each day took all the energy I had. We forged our new marriage on an anvil of shared, often unwelcome, and all too frequently painful experience. With tons of hard work, respect, love, and careful planning, we muddled through, acquiring scars along with our growth. My husband now says we lived a lifetime in four years.
Over the course of those years, life was an emotional roller coaster ride. My parents were ill and dying. His mom passed, as did his brother. We also had one very ill teenager, two children got married, and two grandchildren were born, one with a disability. Several days contained sad funerals, their nights followed by joyous celebrations. Most memorable, was the day I arranged to have my very elderly aunt and uncle fly from Florida to stay in my Washington, D.C. home with my dying father so that I could leave to participate in my stepson’s wedding in New York.
I picked up my aunt and uncle from the airport, drove home, quickly packed and turned around, evening gown in hand, to catch the last flight out to be available for early morning wedding photos. Stretched and stressed, I did not feeling capable of driving and besides, I doubted that I could make the last plane if I had to find parking, so I called a taxi -- or so I thought. Unconsciously, I had dialed a dear friend’s phone number. Stunned at hearing her voice, my plea for help emerged: “Can you get here and take me to the airport?” She was at my front door almost before I hung up. Taking charge, she grabbed my suitcase as I was giving instructions as to where my aunt and uncle should sleep, and the medications my dad would need.
The wedding was lovely, I think. At least the photos tell me so. I barely remember dressing, posing, smiling, or walking my stepson down the aisle. Celebration over. A quick plane trip back to D.C. in time to take care of the very elderly caretakers, who had taken care of my dad and of me. Those years remain a blur and though I can’t scientifically prove the connection, I am convinced that a subsequent illness of my own was related to the pounding my body and soul took during that time. I feel fortunate to have survived.
For a few years, relative peace returned. I returned to rebuilding my own almost shattered life, rested and began taking steps in new directions for myself. But, it looks as if a few bumps may be heading our way. More grandchildren bring more joy, and since they are spread throughout the country, more travel. But, as with many other families who thought they might reclaim their now welcome empty nest, or possibly even move to something smaller or even move away. One child, in her twenties, may return to live at home. We would not be the only family dealing with this phenomenon. The latest census figures show that more than one out of four people ages 18-34 live at home with their parents or parent. As sociologists have dubbed it, they have “boomeranged” back creating a new wave of multigenerational families replete with both new family issues and new opportunities.
Should our young adult college age daughter return home in order to save money while she completes her degree, job seeks or decides to go to graduate school? No longer a child, she would return with her own values, discussion topics, eating and sleeping habits and especially her own loud music and ability to talk on the phone in a way I have grown to find unfathomable. Do we, with open arms, welcome her home, or insist that she pave her own way? Sociologists, ever adept at thinking up new terms, have coined this developmental phase Adultolescence and opine that it offers wonderful new opportunities for close bonding and new family ties. My years as a psychologist tell me that while some families expand their hearts, and learn new skills, others tighten their belts and suffer hardships they never anticipated. As a professional dealing with other’s choices, it is easy to give advice, as a mom and family member, I confess to not always being so sure of what to do.
Statistics tell me I will live longer than ever. Perhaps I will yet have a chance for my own new adventures, time to read that one extra book, a year in Province, or possibly Greece, and that dimming memory of deep conversations and marvelous mid-life sex that I once fantasized about.
Meanwhile, there’s a new grandchild ready to be born, my husband and my future to consider. I remain part of the Sandwich Generation and I am learning and living my own version of modern family ties.
Life is too hard to do alone,
Dr. Dorre Lynn, www.sanecrazy.com
Dorree Lynn, PH.D.