The text from my dad arrived around mid-morning, the time of day when I’m usually just settled in at work and inundated with emails and meeting invites.
As I read his message, my already busy morning became more complicated. He wrote that my mom was taking him to the hospital because he wasn’t feeling well. This was the latest in a series of health issues he’d been dealing with the last few months. While it thankfully hadn’t reached a life-threatening level, the frequency of the trips to the doctor had become concerning.
I’d be lying if I said my first response wasn’t a “shaking of the head, here we go again” feeling. After all, one of the things my dad taught me when I was younger that has most certainly proven to be true as I’ve become a man is this: There’s always something. There’s always something that comes up in your day-to-day life that wasn’t on your radar or in the plans. That’s life.
It’s also life when you’re faced with an important choice and not sure how to decide. Naturally, I was concerned about my dad and his well-being. At the same time, I had my own responsibilities as a dad I needed to be present for. If I made the roughly 90-mile drive to the hospital, my son would be disappointed I couldn’t take him to basketball practice. And if I ended up having to stay for a couple of days to look after my dad and help my mom out, my wife would have her hands full with both kids.
On the flip side, if I didn’t go to the hospital, what would my dad think? Would he be disappointed in me for not showing up for him like he’s done for me my entire life? Would my mom, who was already a nervous wreck, be able to answer the doctor’s questions? I had just visited him in the hospital when he was there a few weeks before this latest incident. That has to count for something, right?
Burden of the sandwich generation
This is a common dilemma of the approximately 25% of Americans like me in the “sandwich generation.” We are adults with at least one parent alive, age 65 or older, also raising at least one child younger than 18 (or providing financial support to an adult child). Being torn between young and old family members, in addition to work and other obligations, adds emotional, financial and physical strain to parenting. Luckily, for me, COVID-19 and the recession have not complicated our situation as much as it has for others.
I ultimately decided not to go. I managed to take care of everything I needed to do at home while checking in with my mom seemingly every 30 minutes about my dad’s condition.
However, that didn’t erase the guilt I felt. It ate at me the entire time my dad was in the hospital. My mind was telling me I should’ve gone. I was praying everything would work out because if it didn’t, I’d be kicking myself for not being there. Conversely, I was glad I stayed home. Had I missed my son’s practice, the other side of the guilt spectrum would’ve eaten at me as well.
As I continue to adjust to dealing with aging parents, one thing I didn’t factor into that dynamic was the guilt I would experience when faced with having to choose between my current responsibilities as a dad with being there to care for my own dad as he ages. I don’t want to shortchange either. I want to be able to give equally to my son and daughter, as well as my dad. That’s not realistic, I know, but the guilt I feel is not fair to me.
Just as my dad warned me about dealing with the unexpected, I hope to be able to help my kids not beat themselves up when they have to make tough decisions, especially when their hearts are in the right place. But that’s life.
Tips for those caught in between
If sandwich generation stresses are getting to you, here’s some advice for coping from professionals:
From the American Psychological Association:
- Maintain perspective: Prioritize and delegate responsibilities. Delay or say no to less important tasks. Find ways family and friends can lessen your load.
- Find healthy ways to manage stress: Are your coping mechanisms unhealthy (alcohol, drugs, junk food)? Consider healthy, stress-reducing activities — taking a relaxing bath or shower, exercising or talking things out with friends or family.
- Practice self-care: Always make time for yourself so you have the mental and physical energy to care for your parents and children. Eat right, get enough sleep, drink plenty of water, and engage in regular physical and social activity. Maintain contact with friends and other family members.
- Ask for professional support: If you still feel overwhelmed or unhealthy behaviors start dominating your “me time,” you may want to seek a psychologist or other health care professional.
From Senior Living.org:
- Agree to set financial boundaries to help parents or adult children.
- Consider having aging parents move in with you to lower expenses.
- Look into investing in a medical alert system to monitor your aging parent.
- Think about hiring in-home senior care for your parents.
- Consider using identity theft protection services to prevent seniors from being scammed.
- Keep communication lines open with family members concerning needs, expectations, feelings and other issues.
Sandwich generation graphic: © Piscine26 / Adobe Stock.
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