My friend lives next door to her elderly father. Apparently, his health has been in more of a decline lately, what with his kidneys not being strong, and his need to sleep more than is normal. I worry about her, because it has been years of her taking care of her elderly parents, and the stress is evident on her. Her mother passed away only recently, after years of suffering with bowel issues, and too many doctor visits and hospital visits. Between my friend and home health aides, her father is hanging in there, but it’s not been easy on any of them. She is such an exemplary daughter, doing everything her parents needed, cooking for them, making sure that they had the care they needed, all while working two jobs and keeping up her own home and helping take care of her granddaughter. She is the perfect example of the Sandwich Generation, taking care of the generation before her and those after. I have no idea how she does it all. We are no spring chickens ourselves these days, so the fact that she has all of this pressure makes me immensely sad for her.
I am not exactly a stranger to caring for ill parents, but my time came when I was still young. Both of my parents were chronically ill during my late teens and early twenties, with some plateaus and some desperately critical moments thrown in for bad measure. Dad had heart disease, and my mother was mentally ill, but began to have issues with breathing and a host of imagined illnesses. I lived at home for much longer than people did in those days, for the duel reasons of being a late-bloomer and because I couldn’t bear to leave my Dad while he was ill and my mother was in no mental shape to take care of him.
I remember sleeping in my clothes, just in case my Dad would come to the door and quietly ask, “Honey?” That was the shorthand for telling me that he was in congestive heart failure, and needed a ride to the hospital. We didn’t bother with the ambulance after a while, unless he was actively in arrest, because we were both aware of the symptoms and what was needed. It was like a fire drill, and I would leap out of bed, put on shoes and grab car keys. We made that ride a couple dozen times together during the last two years of his life. I was in school and working part-time, but Dad came before all else in my world -just as my friend’s parents come before all else for her now.
After Dad died, I became my mother’s legal guardian. I tried to keep her at home, but I was in the middle of my own tailspin of grief and depression, and she became so needy that she was making it difficult for me to leave home for all but work, grocery trips and doctor visits. Although she resented the process of getting her set up in a residence home that was staffed by mental health workers, where she would be taken care of 24/7, I did it to save my sanity, and to make sure that nothing happened when I couldn’t be home.
Before she moved to the group home, we had “incidents”. For example, I came home from work one day to find the town fire department in our apartment, after receiving a call from Mom that the igniter on the stove wouldn’t stop clicking. Why she chose to call the fire department instead of me, when I worked right in the next town, is beyond me. We made two trips to the hospital in the ambulance, only to find that she was diagnosed with acute heartburn. Mom held onto the word “acute” as if that explained it all and made wasting everyone’s time okay. I became resentful and was not the best daughter to her that I could have been. The years of her attention-seeking shenanigans weighed on me heavily, and I felt I was letting my Dad down by not being able to deal with it all as he had for all of those years.
Now, when I see my peers struggling with their elderly parents’ decline, I feel sympathy for them, and admiration for the ones who seem to take on so much of their care, while raising their own families and managing to make it to work every day. It is a labor of love for most of them, I understand, but the stress is prolonged, and the burnout is obvious. I also feel a pang of guilt, when the thought creeps in for a moment that I am relieved not to be facing that burden at this point in my life. Immediate guilt follows – What kind of creep is glad that their parents are dead? That is perhaps being too harsh, and I wish so often that my father was still here. He deserved a longer life, but only if it was a healthy one, and he could somehow be relieved of the burden of caring for my mother. This is an empty fantasy, of course, and the reality is that he was suffering at the end, and had been for years.
To all of the members of the Sandwich Generation reading this, please be kind to yourselves. Ask for help, and accept it when it is offered. Take time for yourself somehow, because a burned-out (or resentful) caregiver is not really doing anyone any favors. And know that there are others going through the same things, if that thought brings comfort and makes the burden less lonely.