You are the sandwich generation, responsible for caring for both your parents and your children. But who is looking after you? And when did this become the norm?
With life expectancy increasing over recent decades, many of us are fortunate to still have our parents around well into our ‘second life’. While this is of course a blessing, there’s the hidden and unprecedented problem of actually having to look after said elderly parents, made all the more difficult by having to also look after our own young adults. But who is looking after us?
Becoming a parent is a commitment for life, a commitment that we seize joyfully with both hands, happy to spend the rest of our lives as devoted parents to our lovable offspring. But we never really think about the fact that we may someday have to look after dependents in the form of our ageing parents.
From the financial stress to the mental toll it takes to split yourself across two generations of people in need, it can be a lonely and difficult time.
We spoke to Carol and Ken, two people with very different situations but with the same outcome: a distinct lack of support, and an impact on mental health.
Carol, 55, has two teenage children and a terminally ill mother in care
We were just getting my eldest, 18, ready to move away for university 180 miles away. It was a time of great excitement, albeit slightly stressful, and I was secretly excited for a bit of a quieter household. We spent the weekend away at his new university town, enjoying a mini holiday while getting him settled in. It was a truly bittersweet moment, and I was entirely emotional.
We arrived back home on Sunday evening. I woke up early on Monday, enjoying a peaceful coffee before I took my youngest to school for their final year of GCSEs, when I received a call from the hospital. My mum had fallen, and her neighbour had called the ambulance after receiving no response. Once I got to the hospital, the doctor explained that my mother’s fall was a blessing in disguise, as during routine scans, they’d found a mass on her brain.
The next few months went by in a blur of hospital appointments, visits to my son at university, and revision sessions with my youngest in the evenings.
My mother’s condition had deteriorated rapidly due to the cancer spreading, and she could no longer live alone. We moved her into my son’s room, and I essentially became her carer. I felt like I was on autopilot; going to work, calling my son periodically, practicing GCSE Literature with my daughter, and looking after my mum. You never expect to be helping your mum to the loo and bathing her, especially when you’re doing the same thing with your teenage kids when they come home drunk!
I continued on autopilot for a while, until one day I just fell apart. I sobbed to my husband after putting my mum to bed. I felt utterly exhausted, both physically and mentally, and I wasn’t sure how much longer I could do this. Being a parent to your own children and then becoming a parent to your parent is just so unprecedented, and something I never thought I’d have to deal with. My father passed away years ago, and my mum has always been incredibly independent, and I suppose I just never thought I’d be the one looking after her, the way she did for me so many years ago.
It wasn’t just that I was cooking and cleaning for an extra person. Our finances had taken a hit, what with one child needing money for their university course and living costs, and needing to get a hospital grade bed for our home.
Regular hospital visits meant more fuel use. Mum needing specific food meant grocery shopping was more difficult, and our electric bills were sky-high from running the equipment mum needed in her room, as well as having the heating on 24/7 to keep her comfortable.
I got to a point where I couldn’t see a way out. Realistically, there isn’t one. This is my life now, and until anything happens to my mother, I’m having to rapidly adapt to my new life. I don’t have much of a social life anymore, and when I do meet up with friends, it just seems to be the same conversations about how we’re all coping with the various negative aspects of our lives.
My best friend said in confidence to me the other day that, while she regrets her parents were a little older than usual and she missed them everyday since they died, she didn’t envy me at all. I know she didn’t mean it horribly, and her sincerity was appreciated, but it made me realise how much easier she had it now, with her grown-up children out of the family home and no dependents relying on her day-in, day-out. This was immediately followed by the most intense guilt I have ever felt, which only added to everything else I was already feeling.
After a year of juggling everything and spinning plates, I’ve finally signed up for counselling. I know it won’t change my situation, but I’m hoping that venting and adopting a different mindset might help me cope a little better.
I think the hardest part is knowing you’re doing everything to look after everyone else, and then coming to the realisation that no one is looking after you. It sounds so silly, but I’d give almost anything to have a week with no responsibilities and having someone look after me for a change. These thoughts are always coupled with guilt and shame, but I know I can’t be the only one out there feeling like this.
Ken, 59, is a father, a grandfather, and a daily visitor to his parents’ care home
Becoming a grandfather is a surreal experience. Mentally, I still feel like I’m in my early twenties, dating my now-wife and frolicking around all the time. But suddenly, here I am, with three children and two grandchildren. Just when you think your children are grown and you’re no longer required to be responsible for the daily practicalities of looking after children like doing the school run, cooking for five, or changing nappies, you’ve got two more little sprogs to do the exact same thing for.
It's strange, as I said, but it’s also beautiful. I wonder if this is how my parents felt when we had our first baby, making them grandparents for the first time. Unfortunately, I’ll never know, as they’re both in care with deteriorating minds due to Alzheimer’s. You couldn’t make it up.
They no longer know who I am, least of all my children and grandchildren, and sometimes I wish I could give them a shake and ask if they remember anything at all, or just talk about funny memories from my childhood, or to ask if they’re happy. My only solace is that they are together. We’re very lucky that we were able to get them in the same home, meaning they get to spend every single day together until the end.
I’d never really felt ‘poor me’ when they first moved in. I just got on with it; it’s a part of life, isn’t it? But since the grandbabies came along (twins, if you please!) I noticed that it was becoming harder to divide up my time, and separate my personal life from that of a care-giver.
Don’t get me wrong, I know what I signed up for when I became a father, but after the kids moved out, I started to feel less like ‘just a dad’, and more like ‘Ken’ again. I spent my evenings with my wife, and it almost felt like we were young again. We’d give the grandchildren back to their parents, and switch on our personal lives again.
Suddenly it dawned on me that I’d been feeling less like ‘Ken’ recently, and instead I was just a dad, granddad, child, carer, visitor, fixer… I was late home from work, meaning I was going to be late for a dinner my daughter had planned with the whole family. My routine consisted of going to see my parents for an hour on my way home from work, but what with finishing late and the traffic, I had a decision to make.
I could either turn up late to the meal, meaning I’d get an earful from both my wife and my daughter, or I could just skip seeing my mum and dad today and be on time. After all, they wouldn’t know, would they? And I’d see them tomorrow… I had to pull over on the hard shoulder, because I was crying so much I couldn’t even see anymore. How could I choose between my parents and my children? Who did I owe more to? Who would be the least disappointed? It was a horrible emotion, feeling so helpless and at a loss.
As it happens, I sat there for so long, I missed both visiting time and the meal. My wife was fantastic; told the kids I had a severe tummy ache and would make it up to them the next week. I got home around 7:30pm and went straight to bed, not waking up until 7:30am the next morning. Hand on heart, I couldn’t tell you the last time I slept for 12 hours straight, but I was so mentally exhausted I slept the whole night through.
I had to take a personal day the next day, just to take some time to myself and work out how it all got to this point, and how I could manage it better. I still haven’t worked it out completely, and there’s some days that I just wanted to switch the world off, but I think I’m doing okay. I’m just waiting for the day when I feel like ‘Ken’ again.