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I live in a cozily disorganized home in Mechanicsburg that I share with my 20-year-old brother, Kevin, and my 58-year-old mom. I’m 17 and a senior in high school. Down the street, in a white ranch home lives my 80-year-old grandma, Lillian, for whom I was named.
Our family sounds average enough from this description, but we are part of a unique group: The Sandwich Generation. This refers primarily to my mom – the one in the middle of caring for two generations of her family. The challenges faced by this generation are distinct and affect everyone in the family, not just the person in the middle.
My grandma moved to Mechanicsburg from Escondido, California, about six years ago, after her husband passed away and she didn’t want to be alone. Before the move, my mom spent a month in California living with her mother and helping her get ready to leave. The two of them sold or donated some of my grandma’s items and packed up the rest on a moving truck. They hired someone to drive the truck across country since that trip was out of the question for my grandma; she was flying to Pennsylvania first class as quickly and painlessly as possible.
When my grandma first moved here, everything was a big family affair. We had get-togethers regularly with my aunt, uncle, and their two sons, who lived down the street as well. I remember this being a lot of fun since I wasn’t used to having family around. Looking back, maybe we actually did it to make my grandma’s new beginning more appealing to her. (The snowy winters brought a whole new challenge.)
My grandma is not high-maintenance and still hangs on to every bit of independence she can. After my mom helped her learn her way around, she was happy to go shopping by herself some mornings and pick up her own medications each month. However, as a wary woman used to the same doctors for 10 years, my mom accompanied her to all of her appointments.
The longer my grandma stayed here, the more she seemed to go into “mom mode.” It seemed to me like she acted as if my mom was no more than 15 years old. She didn’t like my mom’s old t-shirts, so she bought her nicer clothes that my mother would never have picked out. She said “be careful” more than any other words. She commented on the way my mother ate, viewed politics, handled her marriage, raised her kids. The more my grandma imposed herself on my mom, the more my mom started acting like a child trying to appease her mother. Sometimes they argued like a teenager and her mom, sometimes she just said “OK, Mom” and changed the subject or got quiet.
At home, she was not much for order. I’m a rather obsessive organizer so this drove me crazy. She used to make dinner pretty often, but after my parents separated two years ago that decreased quite a bit. I started making dinner about three nights a week, always cleaning up at least part of the mess. For a decent length of time, I went to school then came home and cooked. Sometimes I did everyone’s laundry more often than my mom did. Her mother would take her out for a few hours a day to accompany her on errands, then my mom would go out some more on her own or garden until dark.
During my parents’ separation, my mom’s visits to grandma became less frequent. My grandma upset her with comments about money, the divorce, my dad in general. I could tell it was hard for her to be directed by her mom during such a tough time, to respond respectfully to her comments.
My mom had consumed her life with pleasing everyone else but herself: her kids, her husband, her mom. Eventually, I think all the sides felt suffocating. For a few months last year, it seemed to me like she didn’t go anywhere. During this time, her brother and his wife took on the daily visits to Grandma. We’re very lucky there was someone nearby who could do help. Many Sandwich Generation parents seem to take full responsibility for their kids and parents because think they are the only ones who can help. Even if there is someone else, like a sibling, who can share the job, parents seem wary to ask.
Lately, she’s started going out with her mom again, accompanying her on a couple of errands a week or going to appointments. But not every day. My mom says for her one of the hardest parts of being in this generation is watching her mom change both physically and mentally, becoming less active than she used to be. Some picture the middle person in the Sandwich Generation to be some sort of supermom, but it’s not always what it seems. My mom has health issues of her own to deal with, along with those of her mother. The challenges of being in the Sandwich Generation do not go away for any of the parties involved, even if things are running smoothly.
This year, I will graduate from high school. My aunt wants a big backyard party; I want to go out for dessert after the ceremony. However, we’re not going to do either of these things. My grandma does not like to go out after dark often, if ever, so we decided to all have a nice brunch together the day before the ceremony instead. Compromises such as this one are common in the Sandwich Generation.
I approach my mom to talk about caring for both her mom and her kids. She’s cheerful and asks me to curl up in her lap and snuggle with her like I did when I was very young. I oblige because I like it when I’m the kid and she’s the parent. I ask her how I’m helpful to her. She says that, more than anything, she appreciates when I visit her mom. She thinks it’s important that someone see her mom every day, but that it can’t always be her. I’ve known this for a while, but I’m glad she sees it now, too.
Published in Real Life | Real Issues
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