family, health, hands

How do you cope with being part of the sandwich generation?

I have done this – twice.

Let me save you some grief. If you pay attention to my story you may not need to learn it the hard way like I did!

First thing – take an honest look at your family situation. Do either your parents or your kids have special needs? I mean any kind of special needs, like specific diets, anxiety disorder, ADHD, or emotional issues like depression or other mental health issues. If the answer is YES, your first job is to figure out how the needs of your family will be impacted by the time you spend caring for the special needs family member. In this situation, you can’t devote yourself to the person with acute needs at the expense of everyone else.

Your second job is to consider how that person’s problems will impact the family unit. Do you have the education/training necessary to deal with their particular situation? Will the extent of this individual’s medical needs be traumatizing to the rest of the family? Are you neglecting your children’s needs because you’re too busy taking grandma back and forth to the doctor? Are you ignoring your husband because you are exhausted all the time from serving your family?

Your third job is to take a realistic look at the time and energy commitment you will need to put forth in order to care for this individual. Keep in mind that it is NEVER as easy as you imagine. Do you have the full support and cooperation of your partner in caring for the rest of the family? That is a critical factor in this equation.

Here’s what happened to me: my mother-in-law (Mil) moved in with my husband and I and our 6-month old son because she quit her job and had no savings or retirement plan and could not support herself. She tried living with her daughter, but they had 4 kids and that busy, noisy environment triggered an anxiety disorder in Mil, and she couldn’t remain there.

At first things were fine. Mil was happy taking care of the baby for a few hours a day so I could start my business, and later, when he went into school, she worked with me a couple days a week. Mil contributed about half her Social Security to the household, which left her plenty of money to purchase whatever she needed (since she had a roof over her head and food on the table already.)

Mil had always been a strange duck, but it wasn’t until she was under my roof that I recognized the presence of a bona fide mental illness. She experienced tremendous mood swings, and would literally lock herself in her room for days at a time, only coming out to use the bathroom or go outside for a cigarette. She refused to speak to us, she refused to eat; she refused to keep the commitments she’d made with regard to watching our son or working at the office. If I forced her to keep a commitment, my poor sister-in-law heard all about how heartless I was. Mil would call and rant about me for hours. But she would never speak directly to me.

Mil was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. She knew she had it, and she hid the disease from everyone for a very long time. It was almost too late for treatment by the time it was revealed. As it was, she elected minimal treatment because she had already decided that she was done living and didn’t want to prolong the inevitable. I could go on for days about this, but you get the picture: very little mental or emotional stability.

It was only when my son was in third grade and began acting out at school that I realized that Mil wasn’t just my problem. Her negative behaviors had begun to affect all of us, and something had to be done.

Where was my husband during all of this? He was busy becoming an alcoholic. As you would suspect, with Mil as his custodial parent (his parents divorced when my husband was 6) there was a lot of instability in the household. He couldn’t deal with her as a child, and he simply didn’t have the tools to deal with her as an adult. Correction – he had one tool – ME. I handled everything. He went to work during the day and came home to a six pack at night. He tried to help, but it wasn’t effective.

My own health was suffering because I was busy serving everybody else. I can’t remember the exact breaking point, but I finally arrived at the conclusion that Mil needed to live elsewhere, or we as a family unit didn’t have a hope in hell of surviving another year.

This has become a very long story, so let me cut to the chase. Mil was moved into assisted living against her will, and she blamed me. She literally hated me for about a year. And it took me that full year to decompress from the trauma. In the meanwhile I worked hard at getting my son back on track, and I’m pleased to say that today he is a pretty well-adjusted young adult with the goal of becoming an auto mechanic. He’s found his passion, and can’t believe that someone will actually pay him to do what he loves.

My husband is now sober, and while he has a long way to go in terms of undoing a lifetime of emotional damage, he’s much, much better and I’m extremely proud of his hard work.

Mil passed away peacefully a few years ago, and we were reconciled by then. I hold on to a video clip where she is telling someone else what an angel I am, and how I always protected her and cared for her. I treasure that video, because she managed to break through her mental/emotional illness, and really understand what I tried to do for her.

So to those of you in the middle of the sandwich generation, I say this: take a step back and critically assess the needs of each of your family members. Look at how their needs intersect with one another. You may feel like it’s the “right thing to do” to bring an aging parent into your home, but it may not be the BEST thing – for them or for you. There is always an alternative. Mil didn’t have a retirement account, but I found a lovely assisted living that would accept her Social Security as payment for her room & board and services. Her kids supplied whatever else she needed, which was pretty minimal, and everything worked out.

Be honest with yourself about your capabilities. I’m a Capricorn; I’m good at organizing things and being in charge and I don’t mind taking responsibility. Those are all critical skills if you are going to take care of two generations of family. If that’s not your strong suit, don’t go there. Find another way.

There are so many good organizations out there with excellent resources. Lots of local senior organizations, AARP, cancer support groups (whatever health issue you’re dealing with usually has a charity). Don’t hesitate to ask for help. I felt like I needed to be Superwoman and do it all, and I did for many years. Then I started breaking down, mentally and physically, and I was forced to seek assistance. I didn’t understand the scope of what I was taking on; I thought I could handle it all, and God knocked me to my knees to show me that I had to do things differently for the benefit of my entire family. The only thing I regret is not asking for help and making appropriate arrangements sooner. I learned some very valuable lessons and I’ve applied them diligently since then. Life is a whole lot easier when you are honest with yourself about your limits. Only then can you make good choices for yourself and your loved ones.

Please feel free to ask additional questions if you need clarification. I realize that I practically wrote a book here, even though I didn’t go into deep detail. My desire is to help everyone out there make good choices with regard to caring for family, because it’s a delicate balance.