Depending on which statistics you read, either 10 million or 20 million families are raising children and caring for an aging parent or two. The catchy name for this group – sandwich generation – has already morphed into “generation sand” and “sandgen.”
It is always defined negatively as being a burden and a struggle, “caught between competing demands on your time.”
“...a constant series of no-win choices like: 'Do I go to my kid’s ballgame, or do I go and make sure Dad eats his dinner?'”
- The New York Times, 11 August 2008
“Most feel stretched thin at best and are often left wondering how they can help alleviate the growing burden of caring for their parents.”
- Senior Journal, 2 March 2009
“Many of these couples face major stress in their finances, emotions, and relationships.”
- About.com: Marriage (no date)
There is an unmistakable poor-me quality to the sandwich generation. It would be nice if parents got old without needing help or at least had the grace to wait until the children are grown before succumbing to ailments of age. But events rarely move that conveniently.
Aside from the people wanting to "alleviate the growing burden of caring for their parents," whom I'd like to smack, I fail to see the problem. The kid won't be warped if you miss a ballgame now and then. Unless you sleep through life, stress is normal - stuff happens.
There was a time when multi-generational households were the norm. Half my friends, when I was growing up, had a grandparent or two living with them. Some were healthy and a few grandmothers ran the house while mothers worked. Others were sick and the kids were as much caregivers as the adults in the family. It wasn't uncommon for friends to tell me they couldn't go bike riding today because they had to stay with gramps while mom went shopping.
Of course, I was not privy to the strains on the families of my friends, but I knew those kids and I knew their parents and I hung out in their homes as they did in mine. They wore their cares lightly in those days, making the best of what life dealt them. Maybe it makes a difference that these parents of my friends were people who, like my parents, grew up during the Great Depression. Whatever the burdens, the post-War years were better.
I'm not saying it's easy to fold an older generation into one's family life whether caring for parents at home or dealing with their needs in assisted living or nursing communities. But in the period of my lifetime, we seem to have lost (if the public discussion of the sandwich generation is not just hype), the idea that families share the exigencies of life of which caring for one another when needed, at every age, is one.
The whining of the sandwich generation has so annoyed me when I run across it that I've given it a good deal of thought. It could be that, left to their own devices, families caring for aging parents would be fine with their circumstance. Instead (not unexpectedly in our over-analyzed era), an industry has grown up that repeatedly warns of the turmoil multi-generational families are experiencing which they cannot survive without professional help.
One way to make money is to invent an otherwise non-existent problem, give it a name everyone can remember and then cash in. There is now a good-sized service sector specializing in the sandwich generation - support groups, instant experts, psychologists, care managers and financial advisers prowling talk shows, holding conferences and seminars, writing magazine and newspaper stories.
Books invariably follow and Amazon has a range of them from Stuck in the Middle to Soul Food for the Sandwich Generation: Meditation Morsels for Caregivers. Can a reality TV show be far behind?
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Carol Gardner tells us about dreaming of gray hair in Dome Light is On.]