A New Journey

Watch out! I am up to something. I’m taking the plunge and doing something I have always wanted to do. I am writing a book -taking a year’s leave of absence from my school psych position and diving into unknown spaces.

I went on a long journey not long ago. Many of you have been on the same journey, or will eventually take the same journey. It is not an easy one by any means. It is a journey of self-discovery, pain and joy, and oftentimes, one of immeasurable grace. It is sometimes long and sometimes short. No one’s journey is the same because there is no clearly marked path. No guidebook. It is the journey of time spent in the Sandwich Generation.

Sandwich Generation. I am not particularly fond of that label, but it fits. People of the Sandwich Generation are those folks who have children living in their home (even adult children) and aging parents that require some sort of ongoing care. The name evokes poor analogies – am I the Cheese or the Meat? Mustard or Mayo? Pickles or Onions? It’s a silly name and yet quite apt. I know I often felt like a smooshed piece of cheese at times. Or too little mayo to spread across two large slices of bread is perhaps a better analogy. I know I felt squeezed for time, energy, emotional stamina, and thin on competence for the tasks before me. But until I can coin a better term, I’ll run with this one. 

If you are a parent, you already know that parenting children is difficult. But as a parent, at least I had the experience of 1) having been a child and 2) having been parented. Caring for a parent – in essence “parenting” a parent, is a whole new ball game.  I didn’t know what I didn’t know.  That is the mysterious void where one spends a lot of time – not knowing what one  doesn’t know and then getting slammed with it.

My parents both died in the summer of 2015, 7 weeks apart.  I lived 10 minutes away from them for nearly 15 years and they were very close to me, my husband and our two children. I was blessed for many years with them.  They were good people who enjoyed being with us.  We attended the same church, my Dad taught my son to golf, my mother volunteered in each of their classrooms at school.  We rarely hired a babysitter because Grandma and Grandpa loved to have our kids over when we needed a date night or a weekend away.

I was the point person for them for the last 5 years as my siblings lived out of state.  My brother and sister were very supportive of my parents and me.  In the last years, both of them made frequent visits. Their spouses and children were supportive, as well. Not everyone has that experience. In addition, my parents had put their affairs in order long before they needed my help. Both had cared for their own parents in some manner so they had an idea of what they wanted for their retirement and aging years. They were both pragmatic, thoughtful Depression Era folks who lived within their means and never wanted to be a burden on their children. That was a strong value for them, and I am so grateful for their efforts. It has spurred my husband and I to start putting some things in order. Just like you don’t know what you don’t know, you don’t know when you need things to be in order.

Since being on this journey, countless friends of mine have embarked on the same path. Their journeys are different, and yet so much is the same. In 2014, the Pew Research Center estimated that 47% of Americans were in the Sandwich Generation. The Baby Boomers, one of the largest generations in recent history are beginning to enter retirement. Baby Boomers are said to be those people born somewhere between mid 1940’s (let’s say 1945) and early 1960’s (let’s say 1964). So that generation is now somewhere between 73 and 54. My parents were, of course older. They were part of what is called the Silent Generation, born between 1925 and 1945. Whatever the generation label, all this is to say, we all age and we all end up dependent in some manner. In many cultures, people have been able to depend on family. But in America, it seems, many families have shifted from this, and people sometimes end up without support or dependent on the state. That is not a political statement or judgment – it is simply an observation. For those with families, though, there are adjustments that have to be made one way or another.

For the past 10 years I have worked as a School Psychologist. I think this served me well in caring for my parents. I had a handle on principles of case management, human development, social emotional needs, and the understanding of cognitive processes. It was still very hard to be The One. The One who would handle money, health care, living accommodations. I tried to approach it as a case manager at times. I recall telling the director of the assisted living complex where my parents lived that I wanted to convene an IEP for my parents. (IEP being an Individual Education Plan, for non-school folks out there.) But no such luck. I would often have to convene that meeting in my head and on paper myself to figure out what was what.

So now, 3 years later, I feel compelled to take some time to reflect on my experience, and I feel compelled to share information. There is no one perfect step-by-step approach to this.  Inevitably, people enter the journey at different stages.  Some may never experience the same stages or points as others.  Like I’ve said, every journey is different. Every family is different. Every parents’ needs are different.  For me, reflecting on this time now is difficult.  I think, “should I have done this instead?” I cannot change the experience, but I know I have grown from it, and I hope to grow from it still. And in reflecting, I also want to write and develop a sort of compass or map, if you will. I do not presume to tell anyone “this is how you do it”, but perhaps I can draw a map, point out potential unforeseen hazards (that realm of what you don’t know you don’t know), offer resources for further information in order to shine a light on the path, and offer compassion and hope that other families find grace along the journey.

I would love to hear from you if you have been there, are there, or see it on the horizon. What has been the biggest challenge? Greatest gifts? What are your greatest fears? Thank you in advance for thoughtful comments. I wish you the best.