Sandwich Generation: A generation of people (usually in their 30s or 40s) who care for their aging parents while supporting their own children.
Becoming a parent is a life-changing experience. In that moment, someone else’s happiness becomes so much more important than your own. They become your universe, your heart, your life. The trouble is that the world continues to turn and one day you wake up and not only are you caring for the little people but your own parents are aging. There are more and more trips to the doctor for more and more medications and they need more and more help from you instead of the other way around. You find yourself sandwiched right in between all of the people that you love the most in the entire universe and they all need you at once. The number of people needing you is so daunting that you can’t even fathom one single moment where someone doesn’t need you.
I’ve been living in the sandwich generation for the last seven years. My dad was diagnosed with Lewy Body dementia when my oldest was two and a half, my middle child was one, and my littlest wasn’t even a spec on our family radar. His symptoms had been manifesting themselves for a few years before that; none of my children ever knew the most influential person in my life as I knew him. It’s a long, sad story that ended somewhat abruptly a couple of weeks ago. I won’t bore you with the details other than to say I’ve been trapped in an endless cycle of grief for the last seven years. We’d find a normal and he’d change. We scramble to adjust only to go through denial and anger and acceptance again just a few months later.
My first couple of years on the hamster wheel of grief were rough with the three kids under five and the working full-time and the trying to support my mom and dad. I wallowed. I drank too much wine. Every relationship in my life suffered. I ran from one thing to the next and I resented every single minute. It wasn’t my story. It wasn’t how my life was supposed to go. The kids were supposed to have him to pull them around in the boat on the tube and play broomball the day after Christmas and ride around in the three wheeler planting trees. I was bitter and angry and I felt cheated.
I don’t remember the date exactly but I distinctly remember waking up one day and just deciding that I wasn’t going to wallow anymore. I remember deciding to take the bull by the horns and to write my own ending to a sad story. I remember finally accepting responsibility for my feelings, my truth, my life. I remember deciding to refuse to let the sandwich suffocate me for one single day longer. That day has shaped every single decision I’ve made since then and can be summed up with a few simple truths.
Being nice costs nothing but means everything.
You and everyone you love is going to die. There I said it. It’s a morbid thought but ultimately something that has been very powerful to me these last couple of weeks. My dad touched a lot of lives. Thousands of cards, flowers, and food trays poured in. I think we got six hams in two days. Are you living a life to be proud of? What will people say in the cards to your family when you’re gone? I know it may seem trivial and won’t matter to you in the end but I guarantee you that the people that you love will hang on every single word. They will remember the lives you touched and those positively impacted lives will help to give their own lives meaning. The words and the flowers and the hams will make the grief and the emptiness they feel worthwhile. Be kind to everyone you meet. Make a positive impact on the people you come across. People will remember your kindness and your positive attitude and they will show up to support your loved ones when you’re gone. It will be your final gift to them. Being nice costs nothing but means everything.
Money doesn’t make you happy and you won’t get to keep it.
If you do it “right”, you spend 40 years working, stuffing as much money as you can into a 401K that will hopefully allow you to sail the Caribbean and travel through Europe when you retire. Or maybe you just want to retire at 50 and sit around reading books. No judgement here but here’s the thing. You don’t get to take it with you when you go and the likelihood of most of that money going to care in an absurdly expensive care facility instead of to the people that you want to have it is high. My dad getting sick so young made it crystal clear to me. We save a bit but mostly my husband and I live. We go on trips and use the expensive dishes. We try not to take a single moment for granted. I refuse to wait for anything. Happiness <> Money and it never will.
Perfect doesn’t exist. The best that you can do is good enough.
My perfectionist tendencies run deep. When my dad got sick, I thought I could fix it. I thought that if I just worked hard enough, he wouldn’t have to ever go into a Memory Care facility. When he started to wander, I bought locks for the inside of the doors. When my mom was burnt out, I dropped everything and ran home. When she worried about her financial future that they worked so hard for, I researched Medicaid and long-term care and learned every single thing I could about it. I joined support groups and I started a Foundation in his honor and I did all of the things that I could possibly think of to fix it. I juggled the kids’ schedules and asked friends to entertain them while I helped her take him to the doctor. I ran and I ran and I ran and I tried to be perfect and do all of my sandwich generation duties perfectly and you know what? It didn’t matter. His disease still got to the point where having him at home wasn’t safe or realistic and I still had three small children at home that I was trying to raise. It wasn’t perfect but it wasn’t the end of the world either. Perfect doesn’t exist. The best that you can do is good enough.
Finally and most importantly, YOU are the only person responsible for your happiness.
You have two choices in every scenario: sink or swim. Ultimately your happiness is dependent on you and you alone. Life is hard? Yes, it is. I’d venture to say it’s hard for every single one of us in some way, shape, or form. You can choose to be angry about it and focus on the bad stuff or you can choose not to. It really is as simple as that. There’s no book and no manual, no weekly babysitter to show up for date night and magically fix your marriage, no medical study that will cure Lewy Body dementia and fix every single problem in your world (believe me, I’ve searched for all of them). How you view the world, that’s SOLELY up to you.
It may not seem like it but your parents are aging. Someday you will be caring for them instead of them caring for you. With a little luck, by then you’re a grandparent and you aren’t sandwiched in the middle of caring for your parents and your little people all at the same time. But, if you find yourself smack dab there in the sandwich, squeezed between too many responsibilities, I hope you can find a way to let go of the perfectionism, take responsibility for your own happiness, do the best you can, be nice, love freely openly and live your life. It may not be a perfect story but it’s the only one you get to write. You get to choose how it goes. It’s a bitter and oddly beautiful reality.