I had been at the hospital with my father all day, as he struggled to overcome symptoms of an acute illness. He didn’t need me there, not really, but I wanted to be there, to hold his hand, refill his mug with ice water, pat his shoulder, help him to his feet. I rang the bell to his floor, and a nurse let me in.
I brought my laptop with me, and Dad and I spent several lighthearted minutes surfing the Web for videos of various Bruce Springsteen shows we’d seen together. I was delighted when my father began to tap his foot under the covers and sing softly under his breath.
But I was due at my youngest child’s school, where I had volunteered to be the guest reader for his fourth-grade class. My five older children had all gone through this school, and I have been a guest reader there perhaps as many as 10 times in one year. Surely, over the course of the years, I have set some sort of guest-reading record. I love doing it.
The children are always so excited, mostly because my presence is a break in the day’s routine, but also because I come equipped with snacks. And while I read, I ask them questions, and they happily call out their free-form answers. The room can be a little rowdy at times, but it always feels joyful.
Friday afternoon, however, as I rang the school doorbell, waiting to be buzzed in, the reality of my situation hit me: I am a member of the sandwich generation, that group of boomers wedged between the needs of their children and the needs of their aging parents. These men and women do double-time, trying to make sense of the mystifying medical netherworld that comes with aging, while scheduling carpools, orthodontist appointments, soccer practices, college visits and more.
That realization stunned me, and I had to stand in the school’s main office and catch my breath. I write about aging, often about caregiving, and can rattle off dozens of bleak facts about what it means to be a caregiver for an adult who is not well.
Family caregivers who are at it full time face an array of challenges and burdens: economic, social and personal. They can feel exhausted and isolated, and yet they persist in filling the gaps created by a health-care system that often does not mesh with the social supports so many older adults need. Often, family caregivers serve parents with whom they have had difficult relationships, yet they overcome the past to focus on the present need. Although I am not in the thick of this challenge, I am on the verge of it. Seeing one’s self as a statistic can be a startling experience.
Part of the challenge of being a member of the sandwich generation is experiencing so keenly life’s extremes. Our aging parents remind us how temporary and fleeting this life is, how quickly our time passes. Our children, young and old, tie us to the future and to our hopes and dreams for them.
Young children remind us to see the world from their new-eyed perspective; my young son often says things that run up against my knowledge of the world.
As he reflects on his life, my aging father offers me a similar perspective, one grounded in his experience and knowledge. Young and old, my father and my son keep me engaged and present, on my toes, and on the edge of emotions.
At the elementary school, ringing the doorbell seemed a lifetime away from ringing the hospital floor bell, and yet it is part of the continuum that I am on, traveling as best I can. Millions of my contemporaries are on the same trajectory, learning as we go, as if we were the first to follow it.
This article originally ran in the Sunday edition of the Washington Post, July 1, 2012.
Key words: caregiving, sandwich generation, aging parents, adult children