The Sandwich Generation Dilemma

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Sandwich Generation
11 Jan 2007

Today the typical, modern stay-at-home mom seems to have an ideal situation. She has a washing machine, a dryer, a mixer, a blender, a vacuum cleaner, a fax machine and all the other amenities of the 2lst century. Her life should be a dream. She need do little but sit back and enjoy her freedom, especially if her children are grown up, her household is in order. She should have much free time on her hands. Right? She can open a chumash, learn new commentaries on Parshat HaShavuah; she can volunteer at the local hospital and give joy to the nursing patients; or she can “develop” her talents and take classes in ceramics or Jewish history.

Why then do so many of our modern, liberated ladies look so harassed, so hassled. Why does Mrs. M. for instance go to sleep at 2:00 a.m., feeling nothing has been accomplished? Why are her nerves strained to the utmost and she finds herself fighting with the butcher, the switchboard operator and especially her long-suffering husband?

Is it possible, that despite the endowments of modern life, she’s doing too much in another sphere? Let’s look at a typical morning in the life of Mrs. M., our typical modern housewife who, it turns out, is holding down too many jobs. Now that her children are grown, she balances new relationships with daughters/son-in-laws; she becomes the adviser on household affairs and “chief cook and babysitter” at a minute’s notice. She is expected to fulfill community responsibilities, because, after all she has so much time on her hands.

But especially, our typical Mrs. M. is the daughter and daughter-in-law of aging parents, and the only living relative (who cares) for an elderly maiden aunt who never knew she existed before the age of 80. The aunt has to be taken to an eye doctor this morning, so Mrs. M. makes the appointment, goes over to dress the aunt and is just about to leave when her mother-in-law calls her on her cell phone to tell her the refrigerator is dripping.

Mrs. M. calms her mother-in-law, promising to look in on her later that day, and calls a taxi for the aunt. Of course she will pay for the cab because her aunt won’t spend any of her own money—she’s saving it for her old age. When they get to the eye doctor, the doctor keeps them waiting for an hour. The aunt is restless and it takes considerable skill to keep her calm until their turn arrives. The doctor tells them that the aunt needs eye drops. Mrs. M. makes another mental note that she’ll have to get to the pharmacy somehow today before they close and before taking care of that dripping fridge.

Mrs. M. explains everything to the aunt as they go home. She sees that everything is in order before leaving auntie, and gets back to her own home just in time to hear the phone ringing. It is her father who says in desperation, “Mom has burned the pots again. I don’t know what to do with her anymore.” Mrs. M. knows that her mother has been suffering from mental deterioration for some time now, but she finds it especially difficult to deal with her father’s exasperation. “A man of 88 shouldn’t have to deal with problems like this,” he says, which only succeeds in arousing an all too familiar guilt in our heroine.

So Mrs. M. goes over to comfort her dad and clean the pots. She also discovers that the bedding is wet. She changes the sheets quickly before her father notices another crisis and wonders how they will deal with the incontinence which has become more frequent in recent weeks, in addition to galloping dementia.

While she is at her parents’ home she gets a call from her son who asks, “Aliza has to go to the dentist tomorrow. Could you watch the twins for two hours in the morning, mom?” She loves looking after the twins who are so cute and charming at the age of two, but she’s promised to take her father to a new senior citizen facility at that hour, to give him some relief from the constant strain of living with an Alzheimer’s patient. She’s also breaking in a new caregiver for her mother, the third this month, who hopefully won’t steal, talk on the telephone all day or treat her mother carelessly. Regretfully Mrs. M. turns down her son, feeling terrible and also very frustrated. “How will I ever build a relationship with my grandchildren if I’m always busy with the old people?”

The dilemma of choosing between “what we want to do” and “what we ought to do” is nowhere more prominent than in the sandwich generation. Multi-generational responsibilities are especially the lot of middle-aged and newly pensioned women (although men – sons—are becoming more and more involved as well in our generation). These adult children are increasingly torn by the divergent messages that they receive from society. On the one hand proponents of Western culture declare: “Do your own thing.” On the other hand, we have been nurtured by the age old adage, “Honor your father and mother.”

There are other quandaries. The extent to which we help the older generation, the problem of priorities, and how to handle unreasonable stubbornness when it can effect the health and welfare of parents make the task of caring so much more difficult. Happily the desire to help our elders exists in 90% of our society, religious and non-religious alike. But the requirements are limitless and there are few guidelines, even in the halacha, to what degree we must put aside everything and look after their needs. How do we deal with a diabetic parent who craves food he cannot have; a cognitively impaired father who insists on driving and spends his pension haphazardly; when it seems our only elder care option is leaving a sick husband to look after a sicker parent; a paranoid parent who refuses to let us help him?

Now Mrs. M., our subject for discussion, realizes that life never promised her a rose garden. She really doesn’t have too many demands. Instead of the pursuit of happiness that the U.S. government promised its citizens, she’s content just to be “a good Yiddishe tochter” (a good Jewish daughter), to fulfill her role as a Jewish woman, a wife, a mother and an offspring. The problem is that these roles often knot up, interweave and intertwine, leaving poor Mrs. M. in one great tangle.

Leah Abramowitz is a geriatric social worker who is the coordinator of the Geriatric Institute of Shaare Zedek Hospital and Melabev. She is a veteran freelance writer and active in community programs.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.