Boston Women’s Journal - February/March 2007

The Sandwich Generation - Caught in the Middle

About 15 years ago in the “Boston Parent’s Paper” I read an article that really got me thinking. It talked about the generation of women, primarily baby boomers, who were caught between aging parents and little children. It spoke eloquently about the difficulty of juggling a job, either as a homemaker or at an office, children needing parental attention, and parents transitioning into dependency. I thought, “Wow, we are in a unique situation. We are having children later, and our parents are living much longer.” It called us “The Sandwich Generation.”

My grandparents lived independently until they died of old age in their homes. They had cleaning help (subsidized by us), and meals on wheels, and we all occasionally chipped in with the moving of heavy objects, or helping make decisions that affected the entire family. The children, three on each side, and the grandchildren, seven on each side, did a bit each, as needed, and all of our “tribal elders” lived out their lives with dignity and grace. Those of us who could contribute money did so, those who could help with shopping did so, those who could manage discussions with doctors did so, and it all worked out. To paraphrase Hillary Clinton, “it took a village to help the grandparents age with dignity”, our family village.

Meanwhile our parents raised us. Many of us had moms who had us before they were 25, who didn’t work, or who worked minimally and had time to help their mom and dad and in-laws. By the time our grandparents needed help we were teens or older and able to do our part.

Today we face an entirely different scenario. Often, our parents are hundreds or thousands of miles away, and because we had our kids later they are often still dependent, either at home or in school. We often delayed our childbearing until after thirty, making us older and less energetic than our younger moms. I recently read that our kids consider adulthood to be 30 years old. For our generation it was 18. Yikes!

Our parents, sustained on sophisticated drugs, are living longer, well into their 80s and 90s, often with very complicated and expensive medical interventions. They may need significant assistance to get through the day. Their quality of life may be lower with the traditional neighborhoods uprooted and changed. Their friends and peers are far away or dead. All kinds of facililties are around to help, but they are expensive and require a willingness to use up their own or their children’s wealth to go there, and public facilities are often inadequate.

Because of increased mobility, we often raised our children far from our home neighborhood, and our parents in turn often retired to more elder-friendly areas of the country. Our children were raised in a small nuclear family, rather than a family village. If they’re younger, they tug at us from the other side, requiring large financial commitments and expecting us to help them make decisions we would never have thought of asking our own parents to help with. If they are older and independent, they are often far away, and for better or worse, they don’t really see the grandparents as their responsibility, having had much less contact with them growing up. We also had fewer children, as did our parents, leaving fewer options for helpers even if they were closer by. I often hear stories from my clients of women in their sixties moving back in with their parents to help them out. I don’t think this is what any of us envisioned our mid-lives would look like.

There are no easy fixes. In my practice I often see women who are stressed out from being pulled in so many directions. Often they are at the top of their game professionally, but with financial and emotional pulls from the generations before and after them. And we all have that incredible shortage of time issue. Somehow the 40 hour a week job has disappeared, and by the time we get dinner on the table it’s 8 o’clock at night, and we’re exhausted.

What can we do? We need to take care of ourselves better, we need to take care of our significant others better, we need to be able to ask for help from our quasi-adult children, and we need to be able to help support our parents as they supported their parents. As I’m sure you know, this is just not possible.

The way that I’ve helped my clients deal with this, and the way that I myself deal with it, is to sit down and work out a reasonable plan of action, and to come to terms with the things that we just can’t manage. The village is no more, and that reality requires an enormous amount of thought, soul-searching, and planning. We have been unique as a generation every step of the way, and I believe we will continue to find unique and creative solutions to our status as the Sandwich Generation.