Archive | December 2014

The Today Show edition

Well, despite my best attempts to keep this blog obscure – poor tagging, inconsistent posting, few linkbacks and a general ignorance of other search engine optimization best practices, The Sandwiched Man was featured on The Today Show’s website as a feature on Sandwich Generation dads.  Traffic has spiked into triple digits and my inbox has “New Follower” notifications from WordPress that are not outnumbered by bills I’m watching or paying on my dad’s behalf.

So, a brief introduction for the new follower:

Why “The Sandwiched Man”?

Sandwich Generation is a term many people have heard, but most sandwich generation care providers are women.  They certainly are the predominant blogger set.  So not seeing something written specifically about my niche, I decided to write it instead.  I don’t know if men read blogs but I figured there must be some out there on the same journey as mine.  Also, the URL was available.

What is this blog about?

I am in my mid-40’s and trying to be an active parent while helping take care of an elderly parent while juggling a career I care about, a volunteer organization that means a lot to me, and am also blessed with a spouse who has her own dreams, aspirations and opinions.  She married me because she believed that I wanted to be her partner, and I still do.  This is a lot to juggle and is sometimes endlessly frustrating and rewarding at the same time.  It can drive a man to blog.  Or drink.  Or both.

This blog is about 2 main things.  First, being part of the Sandwich Generation as typically known, helping take care of a parent and kids.  And, second, being squeezed generally between career and home, volunteering and free time, youth and old age, confidence and terror.

How do you do it all?

As I mentioned in this post, I usually don’t feel like I am succeeding.  This is normal, I think.  Most times, like most Sandwich Generation members, I am acutely aware that I am pretty much making it up.  Today I had a very frustrating conversation with someone at AARP Health Plans; I called on behalf of my dad and it turns out that my permission to call on his behalf from last August’s Medicare fiasco (chronicled here), was *temporary*, not *permanent*.  C’mon.  Really?

I have, however, come up with some systems that I describe in this blog.  I am part of a bigger team, which I described in a post called You Need More Help.  I put together some technology systems that help me manage the situation (see Top 10 Tech Tips for the Sandwich Generation).  Also, I keep a stash of Jack’s Abby Smoke and Dagger lager in my dad’s refrigerator.

How often do you write?

I went through a lull where I stopped for a while, but that was bad for my psyche.  It turns out writing about something intense makes it easier to handle.  Now I post around once a week, give or take.

Any other blogs/resources you can recommend

I have been remiss on this one — but I’ll improve.  (There’s a good story about that involving my dad and brownies — I’ll have to share that).  I’ve been introduced by Carter Gladdis to the Dad Blogger’s group on Facebook, which is great.  Maybe next time…

Thanks for reading – feedback and topic suggestions welcome.

The Short Change

change
If you are a sandwich generation member, someone has probably asked you some variation of the question: “how do you do it?”  I recently spoke to someone about this at length (more on this later) and dutifully laid out the many demands.  I write it about a lot (sometimes it even gets read) so as you might guess, I’ve developed a lot of theories about this.
Most of these theories are narcissistic — that is, they center on things that I have given up.  Hobbies.  Free time.  My exercise routine.  Career tradeoffs.  Like I said, mostly self-centered.  Last Sunday afternoon after picking up my kids, I left some neighborhood friends who had decided to share an impromptu bottle of wine.  Because I was running over to my father’s place, I couldn’t join them.  It put me a dark mood for the rest of the day.
But then, this particular list meant to answer the “how do you do it?” question is incomplete, for one main reason: it neglects to mention that for everyone in whom I invest only a piece of my time, they get less than they need or deserve.
My manager noticed me checking my watch during a meeting earlier this week.  This is a rude habit that I know I should fix, but I can’t.  I am on the clock.  I have only a certain number of minutes with him and then I have to run.  The same goes for the members of my team that I am supposed to be mentoring if not for the time limit and the anxiety of having to balance everything with competing personal demands.  I would like to say that I handle this juggling act with grace every time, which I suppose I could do — except it would be untrue.
During the aforementioned Sunday afternoon with my father, I had only 90 minutes because I had to leave by 6pm to pick the kids up from swim practice.  The new hearing aid that had just arrived that might have improved the quality of his life this past week?  Maybe next week.  He has so many stories to tell, old movies he wants to watch, misconceptions about himself he is belatedly realizing that he wants to clear while there’s still there.  No time.
The same goes for my kids.  I’ve missed a lot of dinners with them over the past year.  I justify this to myself, probably correctly, by telling myself that (a) they probably don’t mind, and (b) they are learning an important lesson about making a commitment to one’s parents that, not coincidentally, might serve me someday.  But a part of them does mind.
My wife is not immune from this either, although certainly not because I am around a lot less – quite the opposite, actually.  Once when I had a lot more time than usual between trips some years ago, she commented that the “boy creature” energy in the house had gotten too high (probably the shoes left on the living room floor).  Maybe I was just interrupting her watching the TV shows that she loves and I find unwatchable (example: Parenthood.  Blecch).  Usually our equilibrium is that just that and we work hard to keep it this way.  In part I have made career choices that trade certain types of opportunities for the chance to be home more, be present.  I think the shortchanging here happens because even when present, I am not as present as I was before, and probably not as present as I would to be.
Part of my answer the question was that I regard my glass as half full because I even have this problem.  It is a high class problem compared to loneliness, and I get it.  And most often I like feeling needed, which like aging, beats the alternative.  But being present in more places means that I am less present in each, and this is something with no fix.  Someone is going to be shortchanged.  The flaw is often in thinking that sandwich generation struggles are one’s own.  The reality is that balancing is also hard for the people being balanced.

The Sandwich 15

When I got to Duke in the fall of 1987 (do the math… that makes me 45 years old), I quickly discovered the combined lures of beer, pizza, unlimited snacking, and industrial quantities of industrial college food.  The result was the predictable “Freshman 15″, where I suddenly became more of a man, so to speak, than I had been before.  About 10% more.  Since I hadn’t started as a world-class athlete to begin with, this turned my 5’6” frame a little doughy.  I went through bouts of being more careful, but my roommates and I were well-stocked on Papa John’s coupons and you could go to “kegs” pretty much every night of the week.  It took me until about halfway through my sophomore year to keep the wheels on the car in this department.

Pizza-Box

Fast forward to 2014 (still 45 years old) and my latest bouts with stress eating.

I am in way better shape than I was in college.  I need to be.  A nutritionist informed me three years ago that men over 40 lose roughly 1% of their muscle mass every year if they don’t build it back up.  This could be a total lie, of course.  I didn’t ask her for proof and for all I know, she said it purely for shock value.  And it worked.  Over the next year or so, I developed a weight routine to which I stuck religiously, and which I even started to enjoy.  The alarm would blare at 5:40, I would emerge from bed, and hit the espresso maker downstairs.  I had it on a timer so that it would warmed up and ready for me to take a long pull before leaving to lift, run or swim.  I felt great.

I still visit the gym or run semi-regularly.  Unfortunately, at age 45, “semi-regularly” means not enough.  And the “semi” crept in there, I recently realized, when my father moved up here.

I think when juggling a lot of responsibilities, the easiest ones to drop are the least urgent.  Working out rarely feels urgent.  So my five times per week/every week routine dropped back to four times per week/most weeks.  Close enough, I figured.  I got a little less careful eating; I am part-owner of a burgers and fries chain, after all.  There were enough stressful afternoons and evenings that I might have added a beer that might not otherwise have been in the mix.

This got worse when I started spending a lot more time both at and commuting to work.  Now the 4 times per week/most weeks dropped to 3 times per week/some weeks.  I’ve had some weeks that are better than others, and even after these, I’ve noticed that I’m not making much progress back to the level I achieved last year.  I also notice that the more stressful days at work lead to poorer sleep, which makes exercise impossible, which in turn leads to poorer sleep.

The last piece of this newly doughy puzzle is the sound of the ticking clock of my children growing older.  Now they are 11.  Chances are that I have limited months and years left that they still want to goof around with me in the morning.  The kind of love they have for me right now is mortal.  I can feel myself fighting back against time by wanting to extract every last ounce of this time in their lives when they still think I’m funny, when they still want me to know how much they love me, when they want me around even when they are sleepy and fumbling for their school books at 6:30am.

So, I don’t want to sacrifice that time to be in a windowless gym with a bunch of fellow middle-aged men who probably had the same fatalistic nutritionist who gave them the same advice.

The result has been predictable.  It’s the Sandwich 15 and it happens when you have too much to juggle and want to savor the last moments of your kids’ childhood innocence.

I would like to be able to report in-depth statistics on Sandwich Generation dads putting on weight.  I don’t have them.  Sandwich Generation dads are less well understood than, say, freshmen in college, probably because the 18-34 demographic has decades of purchasing power ahead of them and we have… well, less than that.  But it’s too bad.  In any case, I have found my Sandwich 15 and now I am into my sophomore year, so to speak, of being Sandwich Generation.  Now I just need to find a rhythm and routine that lets me repeat the results of my last sophomore year experience, and work it back off.

 

The Diet Coke Moment

When my father first got sick last summer and ended up in the hospital, I debated even going to New Jersey to see him.  Part of this was driven by the naive belief that his condition wasn’t actually that serious — more on this later — and part of it from the memory of conversations  past that went something like this:

Me: “If you moved to Boston, it would be a lot easier for me if something went wrong.  In New Jersey there’s not much I can do since I live here.”
My father: “I know — but don’t worry, I’m doing fine right now.”
Me (considering): “That’s true until it won’t be, and then we have real problems.”

I found out he had fallen ill when we couldn’t locate him for 2 days.  We had called him on his birthday and he sounded discombobulated, distant, not all there.  Now I know that C Diff has dementia as a side effect.  That was on a Sunday.  By Tuesday, my brother was worried.  He had called an ambulance that Sunday night, it turns out, and was admitted to the hospital.  From his room’s old-school phone (Side note: why do even brand-new hospitals have terrible telecommununications?  Makes no sense.), he couldn’t figure out how to call long distance, couldn’t get help to call my brother or me, and hadn’t grabbed his cellphone on the way out of the house.

Finally he had called a neighbor, who got in touch with us.

I talked it through with my business partner, who had recently lost his father.  He kindly reminded me that although it was probably nothing, I should go see my father.  So I skipped out of work and called to let him know I was coming.  Two trains and a car ride later, I made it to Princeton Medical Center.

So I arrived to his room.  The first thing he said to me in a dry-throated hospital whisper was “what took you so long?”  I had almost forgotten how angry he could make at moments where I wanted to feel empathy, love, respect, admiration for my father, anything but anger.  And then before I could respond, he croaked out 2 more words: “Diet Coke”.

The doctors wouldn’t give him Diet Coke.  That’s odd, I thought.  Later that day when I was talking to one of the doctors, I understood why they were being so cautious.  This is when I discovered that C Diff is a deadly bacterial infection with a 50% survival rate in people that age.  My father’s intestines were so inflamed that his stomach had begun to swell.  The Vancomycin and Flagyl pumped intravenously into his system had slowed the spread of the infection, but couldn’t stop it.  It seemed, she told me, that surgery would likely be required to repair them.

There are a few moments in your life where you realize that some moments ago, everything changed, and you just didn’t know it yet.  When you find yourself unexpectedly in love with the woman who will become your wife and you flash back to the time you first met her and were oblivious to the enormity of what had just happened.  When your child repeats something about themselves you once said in anger and didn’t mean, and you don’t remember it, but they do and maybe always will.  The instant when a doctor tells you that your father is probably going to die, and even if he lives, you understand that he is now your responsibility.

That happened when he had gotten sick on Sunday.  Now it was Wednesday.

I did two things.  First, I called my brother and told him that he had to drop what he was doing and get on a plane, right now.  I didn’t know how much longer my father would be himself, and I didn’t want my brother to miss it.  And I convinced the doctor to let him have a Diet Coke.

I don’t know why I zeroed in on this, my first real act of being a caregiver.  My father is a creature of habits and Diet Coke was one that made things seem a little more normal.  I thought that could help him.  Maybe I wanted to see if I could convince the doctor as some sort of way of using my competitive nature to re-inject some normalcy into a situation that blindsided me.

It had one unintended effect, which was to convince my father that I could and would take care of him.  As signals went, I probably couldn’t have picked a more powerful one.

Since this blog is about being part of the Sandwich Generation and this happened 18 months ago, obviously he survived.  By now, Death should know better than to come for my father uninvited; he’ll probably decide when he’s ready and give Death the nod.  Within 60 days of this episode, we moved him to Massachusetts so that if something like this happened again, one of us would be nearby.

It worked.  9 months later he was back in the hospital.

I wrote an entry a few months ago called “Irony Alert”, so named because I had set up a Sandwich Generation support group only to miss the first meeting because I was with my father in the hospital.  He had awakened to find himself unable to move from bed and needed to be lifted out of the bed, wheeled in a gurney from the building, and taken by ambulance to Metrowest Medical Center.

I knew exactly what to do.  I grabbed his cellphone, his iPad, his headphones, an extra pair of pajamas.  And 3 Diet Cokes with plenty of straws.

I’ve since learned that I can’t control most of what happens with his health.  But what he drinks while he’s being poked and prodded by doctors?  There I am the master.  And he knows that.  Our relationship has never been the same since.  It was the moment, I know, that everything changed.