Caregiving is in my blood. I don’t know if that’s my DNA makeup or just my life experiencing talking. All I know is that I’ve done so much it now feels like it’s embedded in my soul. That’s a pretty big statement. I realize. But I’m willing to guess I’m not alone as a new member of the sandwich generation. Many people out there likely feel the same way.
When I was in my thirties, consumed with a new marriage and raising a young family of my own, I suddenly found myself in the unique position of caregiving for my aging parents. My mother suffered for many years from a degenerative illness, and then my father also began to decline. The nature of their ailments isn’t important, but rather the lessons learned along the way.
As a child of the ‘Sandwich Generation’ (a generation of people, typically in their thirties or forties, responsible for bringing up their own children and for the care of their aging parents), I know what it’s like to be pulled from both ends of the family spectrum. I’ve nursed two parents through illness and then death, all while taking care of three small children.
I’m lucky enough to have wonderful siblings who each did their part to show up when things got bad. But somehow, being the youngest in the family and possibly the most geographically available, I became ‘the one’ my parents began to call on for help. And while I wasn’t exceptionally close to my parents in terms of our relationship, my internal sense of duty superseded everything else. I was asked to step in and offer support. So that’s what I was going to do. No matter the cost.
In the beginning when my mother’s need for home care escalated, my schedule was split between tending to twin babies at home and assuming crisis management at my parents’. There were brutal days spent down on my hands and knees, comforting my tearful and helpless mother, only to turn around and do the same at home. I was frightened, worried, and resentful all at the same time. The swirl of emotions often kept me suspended in a heightened state of alarm. I never knew what disaster might be waiting around the corner.
I was operating without a manual and making game-time decisions with just about everything. My husband was a great support, but we were both at a loss for answers. Sleep was being lost and emotions ran high. Back then, I felt as if I had a permanent pit residing in the depth of my gut. Dread followed me wherever I went. Hired nurses and family help aside; it was a rocky time.
Later on, after my mother passed, I vowed to do better and assumed responsibility for my father. Back then a typical day for me included a precarious balancing act of diaper duty, doctor visits, and meal planning for my entire family. Daytime activities consisted of packing up my pre-school aged son and my dementia-riddled father for mid-day meals. Scouting out safe and quiet locations was always key. Both needed help, often in similar ways.
On occasions like these, my emotions would swing like a never-ending pendulum. I would dip with great despair at the site of my overly confused parent one minute, and then rise with infinite hope the next as I watched a man who didn’t even know my name suddenly connect with my curious and patient boy. My heart broke as I sat them both down, with the instructions suitable for a child, making sure each washed their hands, finished their lunch, and made it to the bathroom without any accidents along the way.
It was messy and unpredictable and, if I’m honest, life changing.
Caring for an aging parent was hard. I’m not going to lie. At times it felt intensely unfair. I grieved for my parents’ suffering, but I also selfishly grieved for myself. Why me? Why now? Why us?
And while these events in my life proved trying, along with them came moments of grace. An extended hand would be gripped when words often failed, an exchange of smiles passed between generations at the dinner table, and a generosity of spirit would sometimes show up in the most unexpected places.
In all of the ups and downs I experienced with my parents, I was also gifted the opportunity to learn something about myself. I learned how to show up for others, no matter what. This meant even when I disagreed with their decision making process. Even when a situation made me deeply uncomfortable, I understood that being present was everything. I learned how to put my own agenda aside and dig deep for compassion and patience I never knew existed. I came to understand that though I may be flawed (in more ways than one), the act of caring for others allowed for significant personal growth.
In the end we all want love, compassion, and dignity. When the trappings of daily life fall away, this is what brings people together. I hope I gave a small piece of this to my parents. It wasn’t perfect and it wasn’t planned, but somehow we found ways to manage.
For those who are going through a similar experience, my heart goes out to you. It will be one of the greatest challenges of your life. But it will also be a wonderful lesson, if you allow it to be. For all of us.
Nicole Meier is a native Southern Californian who pulled up roots and moved to the Pacific Northwest, where she lives with her husband, three children, and one very nosy Aussiedoodle. Check out her newest novel, The Girl Made of Clay.