The Sandwich Generation: A Personal Story

The following is a personal story that is meant to illustrate what it is like to be part of the “sandwich generation” — a growing part of the American population that is caring for young children and elderly adults at the same time.

My father-in-law, Ken, suffered from some sort of dementia and had been declining since at least 2006.  His particular illness was also accompanied by significant physical decline.

Last December, he had a fall and was in a rehab facility in Lexington, MA.  Because of circumstances, it looked like he was going to go into a nursing home.  My wife and I were discussing this, and I articulated the question that was going around in her head.  “Could we have him come live with us in Vermont?”  We talked it through and decided that yes, we could have him come to Vermont.  On December 4, 2009, we brought him home.  Over time, we got him hooked up with a senior day-program, we had a couple of folks come in during the week to help out, etc.  We created a “web of support” for him.

There really weren’t any Wilfred Brimley intergenerational “Hallmark” moments. No Morrie Schwartz-esque wise aphorisms.  No, not really.  It was a long slog.

But, in hindsight, Ken was able to live the final year of his life with dignity, becoming part of our lives.  He went to 5 concerts at the kids’ elementary school.  We took him to church every week (which was important to him).  We went to the lake with him and had dinner with him, our family, and often others in our town, probably 30-40 times over the summer.  And in August, we actually worked it out so he could take a swim in the lake safely.  We took him to the Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls, MA at least twice.

Even though I was there, it is hard to imagine dealing with an illness that systematically takes so much away from a person: from not being able to drive, to not being able to do woodworking, not using a computer, not being able to turn on a television set, not being able to dress, not being able to shave, not being able to brush your teeth, and needing assistance every time you sat down or stood up.

Over Thanksgiving, Ken went into the hospital.  His decline was becoming more rapid, and we needed to get him a work up, probably in preparation for moving to a nursing home.  The doctors didn’t find anything specific, but he still wasn’t improving.  According to his wishes, we asked the hospital to only give him comfort care.  Then on Sunday, Carol and I visited him — he was sleeping and seemed peaceful.  We asked the nurses to call us if his condition changed.  Later that evening, the call came.  His breathing was getting shallower.  My wife went down to be with him.  She held his hand and called her siblings so that they could tell him they loved him (even as he slept.)  She was dozing in the chair beside his bed when his breathing changed again.  She held his hand as he took his last breath peacefully.  Ken died with his daughter holding his hand.

Even with the steady decline and increased dependence, Ken lived the last year of his life with an amazing amount of grace and dignity. He lost so much, but never lost himself.  I am proud of him for that.

To end on a lighter note, when we brought Ken to the ER, a nurse was transferring him from the wheelchair to the bed.  She said, “I’m going to put my arms around your middle, and I want to put your arms around my neck.”  Without missing a beat, Ken said with a slight chuckle, “That could be interesting.”  🙂

No doubt we live in a clumsy old world — unfair, reckless, chaotic — but we also can live amazing, interconnected, beautiful, even graceful lives in spite of it all!

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23 responses to “The Sandwich Generation: A Personal Story

  1. Will,

    Thank you for sharing your personal story. I am sure this will touch the heart of every reader. It has certainly touched mine.

    Laurie

  2. Well done Will…It takes a lot of love and kindness to do what you and your wife had done for your Father in-law.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    Randy

  3. What a wonderful story Will. You and your wife go on knowing you gave your father-in-law all the love and care he needed until the end. My mother lives with us going on seven years now and we are sandwiched between her and grandchildren instead. Our children are grown-up, however some are divorced so we take care of the grandchildren 3-4 days a week, weekends and summertime and unannounced times.

  4. Very touching story, Will–thanks for sharing this. We do live in a clumsy old world, but kindness and compassion make it a good one.

    Susan

  5. Thanks for sharing Will. I am also a member of the “Sandwich Generation” and have been for 11 years now… I am blessed to have been a member for so long. It can be tiring and overwhelming, but you remind of the joys as well.

    Sara

  6. Will, Thank you for your personal story. You and your wife touched my heart with your kindness and compassion.

    My mother is 94 years old and is living in a residential care facility. The family could no longer take care of her, because she suffers from loneliness and needs companionship 24/7 along with other health issues. The family hesitated to do this, but in the long run it has been the best for her. She has comfort,care and companionship around the clock.

    It still hurts me t0 visit her at the residential care facility, but, I know in my mind that this is the best place for her. My heart wants to see her in her own home once again singing, talking to her friends, going to church, driving her car, caring for her children and grandchildren, and, of course, watching her favorite shows, Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune! With spring around the corner, she will be watching her Yankees come to life again as they start their run for the World Series.

    Today, she lives a happy life, talking to her new friends, playing bingo, doing her word puzzles and waiting for the Yankees to “play ball.”

    Kathy

    • Yes, it is important not to beat ourselves up when the time comes for a family member to leave the house. We all have to make decisions about what is right for our families. And one size does not fit all!!!

      Thanks for sharing Kathy!

  7. Tiffany McKenzie

    Will,

    Like the others that have commented, I want to thank you for sharing your experience with us. Your story has really touched me this morning.

    Take Care,
    Tiffany

  8. Michaella Hammond

    This is a beautiful and true story, Will. Thank you. I like how you mentioned that there were no Hallmark-movie moments during this challenging yet illuminating time. That’s true to life, I think.

    I just lost my grandfather on January 8, 2011. He was 90 years old. What you say about providing people dignity and quality of life as they exit this world is so important.

    You and your wife did a loving and caring thing for your father-in-law. Thank you for sharing this experience with all of us. It definitely moved me.

  9. Darn it Will, you made me cry before breakfast. What an amazing story.

    I’m part of that sandwich generation in a way I never imagined. I transitioned to virtual education when my dad became terminally ill in 2003. When he passed away, Mom was the lingering question. She’s only in her 60s, but she has debilitating RA and OA compounded by COPD. Some days, her mobility is zero. So, I moved in with her since I had the most flexibility. It soon became clear her house would need major retro fitting, so we sold it and I bought a home in SE Georgia.

    Enter my 2 year old niece. Her parents have been caught in the real estate bust/job loss scenario after and ill-timed move. I gripe about my squatters, but watching my mother engage with this pre-schooler and this little girl help her Nanny to her ‘rock rock’ is priceless.

    Unlike what you and Carol had to do – make a decision for Ken – Mom and I have talked about options. At my instance, she has long term care insurance. The one thing I can say to others in our generation is have the conversation. We didn’t with my father, and it was an emotional struggle. With Mom, I know what she wants and how she wants it.

    • TK, he got me too! Next time we should have a “tissue index” as fair warning!

      I like your idea about having “the conversation”- perhaps we can continue this in a live event? I know it would help me…

      ~Laurie

    • Tissue warning for blog post. Interesting idea. 🙂

      I love the imagine of your niece and your mom together. Makes me smile!

      Yes! I debated about publishing this article, but in the end, I wrote it when it was fresh in order to be part of that conversation with my friends, family and colleagues.

  10. Thank you everybody for your kind words, thoughts and sharing your stories. From family to colleagues to friends… I am grateful for all your support!

    @Laurie & @tk — I mentioned the idea of a live event on the sandwich generation to CTL folks. Might be a great thing for the KU community.

  11. Hi Will,

    Thank you for sharing your story! It touched me and made me “tissue” happy to read about the compassion and sharing that you and your wife gave to your father-in-law.

    What a blessing you both are, as you sow seeds of greatness!

  12. Will,

    Thank you for sharing your story. I too am part of the sandwich generation. My father passed away ten years ago. He and my mother came “home” to Cape Cod, to live with us and our youngest, so we could assist in his decline from Cancer. After my Father died, my mother went back to Florida to live. But a little over year later, we moved to Florida to be within driving distance. Two years ago she started to have more severe health issues so we sold her house and she now lives a mile away so she can eat with us and we can watch over her. During this time we have had children graduate from college and return to live with us, along with fiancées. Needless to say we have not been able to downsize our house and live in a condo by the ocean, but family is everything.

    Your story is a wonderful reminder of that.

    Ellen

  13. Like many others, I want to thank you for sharing your story. Last May I brought my 90-year-old mother to my home in Maine to spend her final days, thinking it would be a matter of months but it turned out to be only 9 days. It was the most difficult, intense time of my life but also the most rewarding – the last words my mother spoke were “I love you, too”. I’ll never regret a minute of the time I spent with her during the last years of her life.

    Lynn

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