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There’s a growing number of adults caring for their parents and their own children. The experience can be all-consuming.

Illustration by David Pohl.

 

By Jen Bradley


Kathy*, who lives in Milwaukee, retired from her teaching position five years ago, hoping to get a hip replacement and finally take care of herself. At the same time, her mother fell and didn’t tell any family members about the fall for three weeks. But it became obvious something was wrong when Kathy’s mom traveled north to Milwaukee for her annual stay in the Midwest. 

“She was a wreck,” Kathy says, “and we had to make the decision to move her.” Which was how Kathy became her mother’s primary caregiver. 

Many people today are finding themselves in what is affectionately called the “sandwich generation,” because they are struggling to balance the demands of aging parents and children. “Caregiving can be rewarding. It can bring about closeness, love and appreciation,” says Angela Warren, a resource specialist at the Family Caregiver Support Network through Interfaith Older Adult Programs. But it can also bring about a long tightrope walk, in which the caregiver’s health must be balanced with the needs of many. 

Chaplain Jessi Smedal, who directs the Sandwich Generation Support Group at Milwaukee’s Alexian Village, says that because people are living longer and having kids later, the sandwich generation can include people in their 30s and those well into their 70s. And, Warren adds, individual caregiver’s needs, feelings and expectations are often as wide-ranging as their age group. 

When Kathy first heard about Alexian Village’s Sandwich Generation support group, she thought the term didn’t apply to her. She has grown children, after all. “But, yes, I’m in the middle,” she says. “I’d like to be a part of my children’s lives more, but I’m caring for Mom. I’m sandwiched in my mind, my time and where I want to be.”

Smedal says Kathy’s feelings are common and, more often than not, left unrecognized. “We first have to recognize there’s even this need, then listen and recognize their 
challenges,” Smedal says.

Dividing time, energy and even financial resources among many could lead to health problems, job concerns or financial strain for a caregiver, Warren says. “Caregivers have a much higher instance of depression, anxiety and exhaustion than the non-caregiving population, which can take a toll on home life, work life and caregiving responsibilities,” she says. “This is why it is so important for caregivers to set limits and boundaries, ask for and accept help, and take time to care for themselves.”

Kathy’s mom now lives five minutes from her in an independent living facility. Every Saturday, she takes her mother to the grocery store, picks up her laundry and checks to make sure she’s taking her medications. On Sundays, Kathy prepares family dinner for her mom. 

It took awhile for Kathy to accept her new routine, but, she says, the support from her peers has helped immeasurably. “It was a good moment when someone [in the support group] said, ‘It’s not that she doesn’t appreciate you, she just can’t process all the events of the day that fast,’” Kathy says. Having a place to discuss stressful situations, and even rewarding moments, has helped her gain acceptance, patience and appreciation for her mother and the care she needs. 

Caregiver support groups abound in Milwaukee and can be found through Catholic Charities Adult Day Service, St. Ann’s Shepherd House, West Allis Memorial Hospital and St. Francis Education Center. “I could meet individually with each of these people,” Smedal says of her group, “but they wouldn’t gain as much support because they build off of each other and their experiences.”

For Kathy, it’s the reflective moments Smedal facilitates that are especially effective. One such moment was a quiet time in which members talked to themselves in their parents’ voices. “I bathed you when you were young. You were so special to me, and now you’re taking care of me,” Kathy recalls intoning. “It was sweet.”
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