Am I salami, turkey or cucumbers with goat cheese? All I know is that I am in the company of 44% of American women who care for both aging parents and children under 21. I live with my 84-year-old mother, my husband, two daughters, aged 16 and 12, and two dogs, one puppy and one geriatric. We are the Sandwich Generation.
I'd heard the term before, and it always made me feel claustrophobic: the sandwich generation, women who were squashed like a layer of peanut butter between the needs of their kids and those of their aging parents. I'd think, I'm lucky I'm not in that category. My parents were both fit, active, and happily employed in their seventies. They traveled cross-country two or three times a year to visit us in San Francisco, and they had no interest in the wine country, or Fisherman's Wharf, or driving down the crookedest street in the world.
My father, fresh off the plane, would roll up his sleeves and ask, "Where's my list?" We'd tell him about the leaky bathroom faucet, or the hole in the roof, and he'd be off to Ace Hardware, humming. He was never so happy as when he had something to fix. My mother would sit next to him like a surgeon's assistant, handing him tools. When they weren't spackling or hammering or wrestling with something under the sink, they cooked dinner and occasionally let us indulge them in some restaurant sushi or seafood. Never mind that I was well into my thirties. I was still their girl.
But one week in 1994, it came: The phone call. And just like that, the tables turned and I entered the sandwich generation.
My father had an abdominal aneurysm the size of a grapefruit and was in a race against the clock: he needed to have emergency surgery before it burst. It shook me to know that it could have burst at any time, and he would have never known, just a surprised "oh!" as he felt something soft, breaking inside him. And then he would have been gone.
My older daughter was not quite four that summer. My younger girl was only three months old. My own heart stretched, agonized, between my father in New Jersey and my young family in California. How could I leave them? How could I take them?
The thought of flying cross-country, changing planes and then visiting the hospital with a crying three-month-old and a whiny-four-year old made me break out in hives. I decided to leave my older girl with my husband and take the baby with me. I wrote compulsively detailed lists about our big girl's bath routine, the story routine, her lunch preferences, the Playdough rules and the library book schedule.
The baby and I, toting diaper bag, infant carrier, blankets, rattles, and teething toys, flew the 3,000 miles without event. We both slept, and in my dreams I was six years old in a blue bathing suit, floating in the salty Atlantic Ocean in my father's arms.
We drove directly to the hospital in Manhattan. My father looked exactly the same as he always did: cheerful, calm, matter of fact. He tickled the baby and they giggled together. "Boy," he said. "She sure is cute, isn't she?"
"I'll walk you to the elevator," he said when visiting hours ended. He was ever the gentleman, showing the lady out. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed -- strong, muscular calves with sparse, long black hairs -- and put his short, flat feet into rubber zori. He arranged his hospital gown so that it hung neatly and then took hold of his IV pole. "Ready to take off like a big old bird?" he asked. He followed us to the elevator and then down to the lobby where my mother waited, her car keys in hand. "Ready?" she said.
There was no further he could come with us. We had to leave, and he had to stay. We kissed and I breathed in his aftershave. He kissed the baby on her fluffy head while my mother jingled the car keys. "Let's go, you two," she said.
My father walked back to the elevator, then stopped and blew another kiss before the doors closed. "See you later, Alligator."
"After a while, Crocodile." I swallowed tears. Even in hospital slippers, his gait was brisk and jaunty. He was always the guy with places to go, things to do, people to see; he walked like a person who knew where he was going and didn't want to waste any time getting there.
It was the last walk he ever took.
The operation, generally a three-hour procedure, stretched into an insane fourteen hours. There were terrible complications, too-fragile arteries, a mass of frail tissue that was difficult to stitch together.
My mother and I took turns pacing the halls with the baby and sitting next to Dad in the intensive care unit, stroking his fat fingers. I sat on the floor in the visitors' lounge, nursing her in my lap, crying onto her bald head.
It was two weeks of coma, another reconstructive surgery, and six more months of hospitalization before my father saw the light of day. He emerged from the hospital a paraplegic, barely able to sit up for more than a few seconds.
We flew back and forth two more times over the next year, and at Christmas, took my older daughter along as well. Every day, we made the hour-long expedition from my parents' house to the hospital, carrying diapers, juice, crackers, crayons, books, Barbie, the Barbie horse, and extra batteries. My preschooler set up base with her crayons at the foot of Papa's hospital bed, and hung out with unprecedented patience. He inched his way back slowly, and finally transferred to a rehabilitation center.
During those months, I swung back and forth between acting out as a regressing daughter (one afternoon I sat in my old closet and read a pile of yellowing Seventeen magazines from 1976) and suddenly grown-up in charge (I took all phone calls from the doctors, and translated their strange, coded language into messages for my parents). When I left New York, I fretted terribly and left my mother the same kind of detailed instructions that I'd left my husband, only this time they said: "Call about permanent wheelchair, one with adjustable leg rests. Rub Daddy's back with Vaseline Intensive Care. Make sure he eats enough protein: two cans of Ensure a day, plus lots of meat."
That was my entry point into the sandwich generation, in 1994. Five years of painstaking physical rehab followed for my father. Eight months after his aneurysm surgery, he stood on his own feet for the first time and was able to balance for an entire five seconds. That same week, my one-year-old did the same thing. She pulled herself upright at the coffee table, then lifted her hands. Her legs trembled. She stood there, planted on the carpet, an astonished little tree. I counted. One two three four five. "Just like Papa!" I applauded.
This story appeared in slightly different form in Hip Mama magazine under the title, "The Long Distance Sandwich Blues."
SOME STATISTICS ABOUT THE SANDWICH GENERATION
(from Family Caregivers Online)
- 44% of Americans between the ages of 45 and 55 have aging parents or in-laws as well as children under 21. This is known as the Sandwich Generation phenomenon.
- 59%-75% of family or informal caregivers are women.
- The average caregiver is age 46, female, married and working outside the home earning an annual income of $35,000 per year.
- Nearly half of all baby boomers aged 45-55 have children still living at home and elder care responsibilities.
- 64% of caregivers are employed full-time or part-time.
- More than 14 million US workers care for aging family members.
- The fastest growing population group is older Americans.
- The most rapid population growth is among people 85+ with the majority being females.
- An estimated 7 to 10 million adult children are caring for their parents from a long distance.
- Nearly two-thirds of Americans under age 60 think they will have elder care responsibilities in the next ten years.