The Sandwich generation
|Hardworking mothers strive to meet the needs of their children and aging parents|
Jeannie Frey Rhodes jokes that her Google calendar greets her every day in Technicolor.
Tasks related to her personal life are highlighted in orange. Anything having to do with her 10-year-old daughter, Martha, is set off in soft pink. Engagements through Jeannie Frey Rhodes Photography, her longtime wedding and portraiture business, show up in orange, unless it is a wedding shoot, which receives hot pink. Her husband Craig's evening musical gigs are in Kelly green. And appointments for her mother and father, Martha and Fred Frey Jr., are in yellow.
A packed schedule might be standard for today's working mothers, but at 53, Rhodes is part of a growing demographic that faces a new set of challenges. Dubbed the Sandwich Generation, it consists of middle-age adults who struggle to meet the needs of their children and their aging parents in the midst of tending to their own careers and personal lives. According to the nonprofit Pew Research Center, approximately one in every eight baby boomers are simultaneously raising a child and providing some form of financial assistance to a parent. The Sandwich Generation's numbers are on the rise throughout the United States as a result of two factors: more women have started families at a later age, and Americans are living longer. The convergence of these issues leaves the middle generation, typically adults in their late 40s and early 50s, to feel squeezed in their commitments to loved ones young and old.
“I have to stay three steps ahead of myself,” says Rhodes, with a laugh, “or it all goes to hell in a handbasket.”
Her week is typical of others in the Sandwich Generation. She's up early to grab her only chance at exercise. At 5:45 a.m. she walks with two friends, and is back by 6:30 a.m. to help her daughter, Martha, off to school. On her way to her photography studio, she stops at her parents' house to make sure they're safe and their needs are met, and to take some ribbing about “being bossy.” In their early 80s, the Freys are still independent, but in recent years Rhodes' father battled cancer and a broken hip, and her mother suffered a debilitating leg break.
Rhodes spends the day in her studio or outside, coaxing charming smiles out of children and families and processing the shots for anxious clients. Each afternoon requires a different pickup strategy for Martha that ensures the fourth-grader gets to soccer practice, horseback riding lessons, volunteer work at the animal shelter and other activities.
At night, the family settles down for an early dinner and bedtime, facilitated by Rhodes' use of her slow cooker on weekends. The next day, the routine starts again, and doesn't let up on Fridays and Saturdays when both Jeannie and Craig often have professional engagements.
“It's a race,” says Rhodes. “But we laugh about it a lot.”
Similar stories play out among members of the Sandwich Generation at the Red Shoes, a nonprofit center in Mid City promoting personal growth for women that offers yoga, meditation and educational classes.
“I can't tell you the number of people we hear from who are feeling this issue,” says Wendy Herschman, the program's executive director. “We are constantly getting requests to do workshops on issues related to the Sandwich Generation. I think people are feeling a lot of anxiety around this.”
Herschman says Red Shoes participants talk about dealing with the stress of aging parents and children, including older children. They arrive at the center specifically to ward off worry and fear.
“It's so hard to see the people we love aging and having to rely on us the way we're used to relying on them,” says Herschman. “But if you can just take time for yourself to breathe deeply and get to a better place to make a decision—it's like a release valve.”
Herschman adds that more Red Shoes members have spoken up about having to continue to support adult children. In October, the nonprofit held its first-ever “Not So Empty Nest” class, a three-part session on the growing phenomenon of adult children moving back in with parents. Three respected local therapists—Nina Barbin, Diane Marabella and Sally F. P. Williams—team-taught the class.
It's a familiar issue for Penny Blanchard, 49, a neonatal nurse practitioner who is caught squarely in the Sandwich Generation. Blanchard's son Brady, 24, recently moved home to help make a career change. Blanchard is hoping he'll pinpoint what he wants to do, but she is also pulled in other directions. Her mother, Glenda DeLong, has Alzheimer's disease and lives with the family. Blanchard is the primary caretaker for her mother as well as her own husband, Larry, who suffered a brain injury 15 years ago. Both are able to live at Blanchard's home with the help of home health workers.
Blanchard, who is also now planning her 22-year-old daughter Lynley's wedding, choses to find the positive side of challenging personal circumstances. Despite her mother's condition, she and her children sometimes take DeLong Cajun dancing, an activity she has always loved. Blanchard also takes deep satisfaction in providing care to families of babies born early and with severe challenges through her work in area neonatal intensive care units. And she says she prays frequently, and occasionally takes time for herself.
“I found at a certain point that I had to be able to take a break and do something for myself so that I could be there for everyone else,” she says.
Barbara Auten, executive director of Alzheimer's Services of Greater Baton Rouge, says the Sandwich Generation is facing a set of challenges like no other generation has before it.
“They feel the stress of being pulled both ways,” says Auten. “Their parents might be resisting the loss of independence, and they're not quite prepared to step in and take control. There's no real class or support group for these people.”
Auten says members of the Sandwich Generation are pressed for time because life has placed unusual demands on them. Many are still working and trying to fund their retirement accounts or pay for college tuition, while they're also shuttling their parents to doctors' appointments and determining how long their parents should continue driving or living on their own.
“It gets particularly challenging when we start restricting our parents and their circle of activity gets smaller,” Auten says. “That's when they start to get more uncooperative.”
With incidence of Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia rising, more Sandwich Generation members will find themselves like Blanchard, managing a relative's mental decline along with a physical one.
One of five children, Terry Miller, 52, has taken on the responsibility of her mother, Shirley Wood, who has late-stage Alzheimer's, since her mother's diagnosis six years ago. Miller has had to balance several issues, including the care of her mentally challenged younger sister, Vicki Goggins, and her daughter, Tracey Jarreau, now 33, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008. At the same time Jarreau was undergoing chemotherapy and a double mastectomy, Wood's brain function was in sharp decline. It was an overwhelming set of circumstances, but the family met it with humor and faith, says Miller.
“Sometimes all you can do is laugh to keep from crying,” says Miller good-naturedly.
Today, Jarreau is doing well and enjoying life with her husband and two children. But Wood's condition recently worsened to the extent that she requires care in a private care facility.
“I feel guilty about it, even though I know it's best,” Miller says. “But I pray that I don't have blinders on about her care. I want to make sure she's OK at all times.”
The Sandwich Generation might be singled out as a significant cultural phenomenon these days, but Rhodes says she finds comfort and precedents in past traditions.
“When I was young, my grandfather lived with us, and I watched my parents take care of him,” she says. “I look at us now and I think, This is important for my daughter to see: me taking care of my parents.”
Experts say plan, discuss
Like it or not, the issues faced by today's Sandwich Generation won't recede anytime soon, as older Americans continue to live longer and young people face rising tuition and the pressure to have top-notch job skills. More aging experts and financial planners are advising their clients to plan accordingly.
“This phenomenon is widespread, and it only gets worse as the baby boom generation ages,” says Don Scully, general agent of Fleur de Lis Financial.
The problem, say Scully, is threefold. Care for aging parents can be expensive, especially when you're possibly saddled with the cost of college or private school tuition. Retirement saving should continue to be a priority, but often gets short shrift due to the pressing demands associated with dependent parents and children.
“It's most important that families sit down and discuss their present situations honestly,” says Scully. “You have to understand what your parents have in place and what you have in place for yourself and your children, and find out where the gaps are.”
Barbara Auten, executive director of Alzheimer's Services of Greater Baton Rouge, is a great proponent of planning. “It's terrible but most people don't even have a will,” she says. “It's really important that families sit down and talk to each other about what Mom and Dad want before anything happens.”
These may be difficult conversations to have, but experts say they are necessary. Scully borrows a football analogy to make the point about advance planning: “You win championships with defense.”
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