By Alana Kirk.
Are you feeling the strain of being in the sandwich generation?
Mid-age comes armed with a lot of cliches from poor eyesight to thinning eyebrows. But there is a new experience that is adding to the stable of issues we face; being squeezed between the care of children and elderly parents. I call them the sandwich years, and mine began four days after my third baby was born. My mum, who had been with me at that birth and was now looking after my two other children suffered a catastrophic stroke, and in an instant went from being a glamorous vibrant socially active woman, to an old invalid who was permanently paralysed, doubly incontinent and brain damaged.
The years that I had expected to spend looking after my children, being looked after by my mum, and her helping with child-care, were immediately replaced with years of me caught in the chaos of both child-care and parent-care. Her ‘care-for-me’ days had abruptly ended and my ‘care-for-her’ days had unexpectedly begun.
There must be at least 3 trillion tomes in the bookshops on how to raise our children. But there aren’t that many (if any) on how to care for our parents. Yet it is increasingly what many of us will end up doing.
My Sandwich Years lasted nearly six years, where I was constantly torn between the needs of the two ends of my love life – my children and my parents. The Sandwich Generation is not new. The phrase was coined a few decades ago to describe those caught in the double whammy of care. But the reason it is becoming more relevant and prevalent is the increasing trend of women giving birth later and parents living longer. The average age of women giving birth has increased steadily, and in the UK last year, the number of women aged 35 and over giving birth exceeded those of 25 and younger for the first time. Life expectancy has also increased and our population is ageing. The number of older people is predicted to grow dramatically in the next few years, with predictions that the numbers of those aged 65 and over are projected to increase by a quarter by 2022.
With those two trends combined, we are seeing a perfect storm of care for those left to raise and support both ends of the life-line, with them sandwiched in the middle. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is predominantly women who are more likely to bear the brunt. A recent Carers UK study found women were four times more likely than men to have given up work due to multiple caring responsibilities. It can leave many over-stretched, over-whelmed, and over a barrel.
My Sandwich Years arrived by ambulance. But for many, the role reversal from child of their parent to parent of their parent can be less dramatic. But no less challenging.
Sometimes they arrive quietly, surreptitiously, without fanfare. Suddenly the balls you are juggling to maintain your old family and your new family are falling down around your ears. Perhaps it starts with a fall. Or you notice a slowing down or a reduced ability to help. You are caring for your children and you think your parents are caring for you, and your children. But slowly you discover they need more support and in a gradual process you switch roles of cared for and carer. Or it could be a Hospital Appointment that turns your worlds upside down. A diagnosis that will change everything. Regardless of the dysfunction or intimacy of that parent-child relationship, regardless of how long or how little time you have had, regardless of the beauty or horror of those final moments, losing a parent is a seismic event in anyone’s life. It is one of those rare lines that will always divide our lives into Before and After. But sometimes the line is not clear cut. Losing a parent can be hugely traumatic. But caring for a parent can be extremely challenging as often that loss happens over a long period of time. And sometimes it involves a level of care that we are just not prepared for.
It can have a negative impact on those of us who find ourselves in a perfect storm of care. Recent research by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies shows that those caught in the sandwich years are becoming one of the hardest pressed generations, with women more likely to face the pressure of simultaneously shouldering responsibility for the young and old ends of their family. Recent research by Charity Carers UK into the sandwich generation found there are a staggering 2.4 million people sandwiched between providing support to an older adult with disabilities or chronic illnesses who have children to care for as well. A fifth of 45 to 60-year-olds are actively supporting parents while their children are still at home, and for many, juggling these care-giving roles is putting both financial and personal strain on the family. Add to the mix the fact that many of us have chosen to live further away from our parents than previous generations and the strain becomes even harder.
For me, I spent nearly six years travelling up the Dublin-Belfast motorway, often leaving my two older daughters behind. It meant wrenching decisions, and terrible choices, always being pulled between the needs of my children and home, and my parents. I spent the first year literally spoon-feeding my baby and my mum. Changing their nappies. Only communicating through their eyes. Cleaning two houses. All of us had to adapt. The person who had cared for our family now needed that family to care for her.
I wrote about my experiences in a blog and reached out to and was touched by, others in the same situation. That blog became a book. I had no idea what caring for a parent would mean. Overnight I went from being mothered to caring for my mother. It has been extraordinary challenging. The pull nearly tore me apart at times and during the process I learnt the hard way that the most important part of being caught between child-care and parent-care is to self-care. But as I look back and I see the girls and woman I was sandwiched between, I know it has also been an extraordinary privilege.
Click the image for a link to Alana’s book.
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Alana Kirk is a writer and journalist. She has travelled the world, working for charities and writing their stories. Her first non-fiction book, the bestselling Daughter, Mother, Me: a memoir of love, loss and dirty dishes was released in paperback in January as The Sandwich Years. She still works for the non-profit sector as well as being a writer and raising her three girls. She is working on her second book. Her latest blog Grin&Tonic explores how this generation of women are redefining middle age.