I don't think my husband has seen the latest Statistics Canada sandwich generation stats.
He's been too busy being one.
The thickness of the slices of bread in that sandwich (two aging parents, four growing kids) and the skimpiness of the filling (one severely stretched 40-something guy) vary from week to week. Tonight my husband is looking like a the filling in a sandwich that has fallen to the bottom of someone's backpack: kind of squished and flattened.
He's made two separate trips to the city where his parents live –- a city two hours from our home -- and he'll be making at least one more trip before the week is finished.
Both of his parents were admitted to the hospital this week with separate health concerns.
At times like this, we switch into family triage mode. My husband focuses on caring for his parents while I do my best to hold things the most important things together on the home front. It's the only way to get over the hump.
When I compare my situation, as the oldest of four girls in a family, to my husband's situation, as an only child, I realize how lucky I am. When my Dad had his pacemaker surgery back in the spring, I had the luxury of sharing the worry load with my three sisters. My husband, being an only child, is on his own. And so are my in-laws, much of the time.
The health care system conspires against families – or so it seems at times like this. While we would love to have his parents move to our community so that they could live out their final years close to us, the chronic shortage of doctors in our community makes that impossible. It would be sheer insanity to move two elderly people with chronic and acute medical needs to a community such as ours: a place where 1 in 5 residents can't find a doctor. And so my in-laws struggle on day-to-day, two hours away from us, lonely and isolated much of the time; my husband burns up the highway between here and there and is slowly but surely burning out himself; and the health of three people close to me is being affected (four, if you count our son with Aspergers syndrome, who finds it really difficult to cope with his dad's many absences).
I try to provide whatever help I can to my husband, but I can't download the worry and frustration he is shouldering. All I can do is listen from the vantage point of someone who has been there and who knows that you have to do whatever it is you can do and feel you have to do and, at the same time, forgive yourself for not being able to do it all.
Often what you want to do is just be there -- to make time for both conversation and silence. I spent the night before my grandmother's death sleeping in an empty hospital bed in her room so that I would be there if she woke in the night and had something to say; or if she simply needed reassurance that she was loved and that someone from the family was near.
Just as you can never get back those early months in your baby's life, you can never recapture those final chapters in the life of someone who is growing older. And because you do not know ahead of time just how many chapters of that person's life story will ultimately be written, you don't want to take for granted any of the scenes in that story as they play out. After all, you're writing the script that will ultimately form more of the text of your memories -- the stories you pass down to your children and your grandchildren when they say, "Tell me about your parents...." many years from now.
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Worth noting: "Boomers now live in a world of paid work, caring for children (with more adult children still living at home) and increasingly long-lived parents and friends. The size of the “sandwich generation,” the generation caring for children and older parents, is likely to grow. The aging of the baby boomers will result in a much larger proportion of seniors in the population. With lower fertility rates, there may be fewer adults to care for the elderly. Seniors already provide a significant proportion of care for other seniors."
- Eldercare: What We Know Today by Kelly Cranswick and Donna Dosman