My initiation into The Sandwich Generation

I have read many blogs over the years and I have to admit, they make me feel like I am probably a little too late to have a compelling hook.  I live in suburbia, so can’t wax heroic about the challenges of cooking for 365 straight days in a tiny urban kitchen with one burner and an underpowered oven.  I have 10 year-old children and a mortgage, so I am not about to trek through the Orient, across the Sahara, all the while really journeying inside my own mind on a self-indulgent journey to its center.  I have completed only 2 short triathlons, so I lack the credibility required to speak of discipline, of commitment, of transcending my limitations.  I drink beer, so while I know about its self-medicating qualities, I can’t hold your attention my encyclopedic knowledge of different brewing styles.  Maybe someday.

What I can write about, with authority, is juggling.  Specifically, about being caught between two things that each pull me nearly irresistibly in opposite directions.  You know it as “sandwich generation”.   This typically refers to newly middle-aged adults who wake up one day looking after children and elderly parents, all the while fearing that the struggle to accomplish both is futile.   And, somewhere in the back of their minds, they remember that they are married and would like to stay that way.  And, they probably have to earn a living.  And, they have made commitments to their community – their neighborhood, their hockey team, or in my case, their synagogue.  All of this happens at the precise moment that their bodies start their slow physical declines, suddenly needing more running just to arrive at the same cardiovascular destination.

This is now my story.

My father contracted a dangerous stomach infection in June.  He had been living on his own in the same split-level where I grew up in Lawrenceville, New Jersey for the past 2 years.  He got sick on his 89th birthday and when we couldn’t reach him for more than 2 days, we knew that something had gone wrong.  A neighbor told us that he was at Princeton Medical Center, and I figured that it would a quick recovery from food poisoning or something equally innocuous.  Only when I traveled down there and spoke with the doctors – who, as anyone who has dealt with a sick relative long-distance can tell you, are impossible to reach over the phone – did I find out that his malady, the dreaded C Diff infection, has a 50% mortality rate at his age.

I carry with me the memory of standing by the hallway window and calling my brother to tell him to buy a plane ticket, right now, because we didn’t know what was going to happen.

My father is a man who survived the Nazis, then the Communists, and then colon cancer, and even eating his own cooking in recipes he learned after age 87, so we should not have been surprised that he beat the 50/50 odds and left the hospital 10 days later.  But before he cheated death, he wrestled with it, and as a son, nothing drives mortality home like watching a father do this.  I would run my fingers through his hair as he looked up at me from his hospital bed, and I could not help but see myself.

More on that experience later.

Over the course of the next 2 months, my brother and I made many trips to Princeton, first to the hospital, then to the rehab center, and finally to pack him up and move him to the Boston area to live near me.  And now he is here.

So, my story is about wishing for and getting one more meal at Legal Seafood with my father.  It is about best practices for making work conference calls from hospital waiting rooms.  It is about a rainy night on a cellphone with a dying battery at a compounding pharmacy debating a prior authorization for an expensive Tier V antibiotic with my dad’s Medicare Part D provider.  (Side note: it also is about waking up that morning not knowing what a compounding pharmacy, prior authorization, Tier V antibiotic or Medicare Part D provider were).  It is about sitting on the porch with my wife, who is crying because she fears that the life I’d had this past summer was going to swallow our marriage and our limited time with our children.  And, it is about the clarity of selflessly loving a (sometimes selfish) parent.

Until I start writing regularly, I can’t predict what else it will be about.  But I hope you recognize enough of your own story in mine to keep reading and maybe contribute as well.

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9 responses to “My initiation into The Sandwich Generation”

  1. Jeffrey says :

    Peter, sounds like we should connect for coffee. My Dad fell days before his 90th birthday last June and it’s been a very painful slide. Add to that his wife of 20 years suffering geriatric depression and not able to cope with his needs. My brother, sister and I have taken over responsibility for his finances, food, healthcare, insurance, prescriptions, etc. He’s in NY and I get there when I can, but it’s multiple calls per day dealing with a myriad of mostly unimportant issues – need apples, can’t get to my stock ticker, etc. His wife escalates even more unimportant issues – why are we still paying the dues to the country club ($100/mos), why did the Amex bill get paid twice, the visiting Dr didn’t take his shoes off, … It’s taking a toll on all of my siblings and our families. There is a positive which is the health aide, Margaret who is an angel. But it’s just a matter of time before my Dad’s wife drives her out.

    Hang in there and let me know if some mutual support would be welcome.


    • peterbiro says :

      Glad to get together – just send me an email and we’ll find a time. I have an upcoming post about needing more help (aka, “you can’t always be the first phone call.”

  2. lorenmcdonald says :

    Great post Peter … brought tears to my eyes thinking about my own past. My story: In 2002 the day before Thanksgiving my father went into the hospital for a quadruple bypass.

    He survived the surgery fine … but it weakened him and he was never the same after and started a steady decline. At the same time, while sitting in a hotel room across from the hospital (that my dad was in) I discovered that my mom had dementia – which was subsequently verified as Alzheimer’s.

    I was sitting 2 feet from her and she started talking about her son (me) using my name and speaking as if I wasn’t in the room. I learned later that stress amplifies the elements of Alzheimer’s … we thought she was just forgetful up until that night.

    A few months later I had “the meeting” with my dad … he gave me all of their financial account info, etc and we started planning for his death. That was a tough conversation.

    My dad died in 2004 and I had to bring in care for my mom. She lived 2 hours from me … so for a few years I had to drive regularly to see her, work in the yard, etc. Then I sold the house and moved her into an assisted living facility near me.

    Buying Depends for your mom and watch her decline into a drooling vegetable that can’t talk, needs to be fed and doesn’t know who you are is about as depressing as you can get. Meanwhile my sister accused me of stealing money, she tried to change the will, etc. – this was the most stressful period of my life (was also when we worked together Peter).

    Meanwhile, you have a wife and two daughters (a teen and pre teen) that you have to take care of – but your first emotional priority tends to be for your parent. My wife understood things, but also resented that “she was not first.”

    In 2012 I got “the call” at 6:30 am one July morning from Sunrise that my mom had passed away.

    The emotions at that moment were so complex. A mix of tactical things to start thinking about, deep sadness that you lost the woman who shaped your life and relief that she had finally moved on … And guilt that perhaps I could move on to the next chatter of my life… now that she passed.

    Sorry for writing a tome Peter – but your post inspired my to write my thoughts down for the first time since my parents passed.

    I look forward to you sharing your story … I’m sure it will be both cathartic and helpful to others.

    Good luck!

    • peterbiro says :

      Loren – I remember having ‘the conversation’ with my mother, who was the keeper of all that stuff, when she was in the hospital after breaking her hip (but then didn’t survive all the complications). She had hidden that stuff from everyone my whole life, so that’s how I sort of knew that she was giving up. My next post is about some of that period.

  3. S. says :

    Keep writing, Peter. We’re reading…

  4. susan says :

    Your writing is compelling; your situation so many can identify with. As a former school counselor (and author of a helping children of divorce book), I’m thinking–if you and your wife feel comfortable and you know your girls are aware of the added stress–it may be helpful information for their counselors to have. I know it was helpful to me and the kids were glad that I was aware.

  5. Laura Morris says :

    It’s comforting to know there are others out there that are going through the same or similar situations. I have been part of the Sandwich Generation going on 14 years. My husband and I helped to care for my parents before they passed from cancer, dad 12 years ago and mom 11 years ago. At the time, I had a 2 year old and a 7 year old. My family’s journey continues on because for the last 11 years, we have been living with my in-laws, who were in their late 70’s and encountering health issues. These particular years have been the most challenging, saddest, lonely, but rewarding, in the fact that we are the ones to honor our parents by taking care of them in their time of need.

    I also have found that writing about me and my family’s experiences helps to relieve stress and is a form of therapy. I, with the help of my husband, have written an E book on our first layer of our sandwich, my parents. Please stop by my blog sometime,

    Well wishes on your journey.

    • peterbiro says :

      Thanks – I have a few entries in the pipeline that deal more with the sandwich part and less solely about the caregiver part. It does tend to suck the oxygen out of everything else because it is so often urgent, as opposed to child-raising, which is an emergency less often. I’ll link to your site on the side – maybe you could refer or recommend this blog too. Thanks again!

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