Tuesday, 10 September 2013

The Sandwich Generation

From CareStation
They call us the sandwich generation. We are the ones who care simultaneously for elderly relatives and young children. It feels like a personal struggle sometimes. It comes from a number of sociological phenomena.

There are the demographic facts that people are having children much later in their lives, plus, owing to better healthcare, diet and other factors, more people are living much longer.

For some these demographics work out well. Those having children at a younger age may find their parents are still fit and willing to help out. For others, different sociological forces put an additional pressure into the mix.

Breville 2 slice
sandwich toaster.
The Fella sometimes says he feels like a Brevilled sandwich family member. We had our piglet when we were much older so his parents were becoming elderly even though they had had him at a young age. In addition, they both suffered ill health. They rose into the middle classes from relatively underprivileged solid working class homes. They could have served as illustrations of the Black Report published in 1980, which found that widespread inequalities in health in Britain could be traced to economic inequalities. Like many women of her generation, Outlaw Mom had become diabetic during pregnancy - because of this I noticed how often during my own pregnancy any tendency I might have towards diabetes was monitored - and this had a terrible impact on her subsequent health.

Ashton Primary School looked at
what food was served in the 1960s.
The Outlaws are Baby Boomers. They belong to a generation who had an underprivileged upbringing at a time when the importance of good diet wasn't as clearly understood. Their parents had access to few luxuries in life. They worked in physically demanding jobs. The Outlaws were the first generation of their families to have jobs which were sedentary. Feminist historians point out that the stay-at-home mum is a Victorian middle class gender ideal. Outlaw Mom was able to give up work and stay home, unlike her mother or mother-in-law (although she never quite saw this as the benefit others viewed it as!). The Outlaws were part of the group of their generation who made enormous upwardly mobile strides into a different income group. They enjoyed leisure activities revolving around foodstuffs which nobody thought to call high in fats and sugars. Their parents had stinted themselves so that they could do well. They had the means to be indulgent.

From AgingCare.com.
Late in life, the Outlaws found it hard to get into routines involving regular exercise. Their diet continued to be surreptitiously indulgent. The health of both deteriorated yet they remained proudly independent in spirit.

Like many in our generation, the Fella had moved away from his family home to take up work. We lived at a considerable distance and visited the Outlaws regularly but not every week. On the one hand we regretted not being able to pitch in more and help out. On the other hand, I could not but recognise that if we had lived nearby, I - as the female adult working part-time - would have been drawn into spending much more time than I wanted going shopping, cooking for the entire family and running people to hospital visits and other necessary errands.

Aaaah! No-o-o-o! (Pic from 192.)
I used to love shopping with Outlaw Mom; we would go to a big local shopping centre and cruise through picking up things for Piglet. She and Piglet went to Build-a-Bear together, sparing me this agony, while I relaxed over the paper in the cafĂ© outside. However, I didn't want to spend four hours every week in this way and I didn't want to spend half of the rest of my week doing many other things which had not been part of the training provided in my PhD.

As the Outlaws' health gradually failed, the Fella and I became increasingly anxious about them. They were well-to-do and we argued that they could easily afford some help in the home to ease the burden on Outlaw Mom in particular. For three years we put the case to them, feeling we were beating our heads against a brick wall. Outlaw Mom would laugh merrily as she described how the two of them cooked together - one just out of hospital who could sit on a high stool and stir things, the other just up from the sick bed who could tell him what to put in the saucepan. We would grit our teeth. When we went up to visit, I would surreptitiously rush round cleaning as much as I could while the Fella watched over Piglet and we would go home exhausted and grumpy.

Our situation was not made easier by the complicated network of support which might or might not be available to elderly people who are struggling bravely on. In the juggling act between provision of essential services and cost-cutting, local authority agencies are unwilling to volunteer information about what might be available. After all, if they keep their head in the sand long enough, by the time they peek out, some family member may have taken pity on the ailing elderly person or some private package of housing and help have been put in place - saving (other) tax-payers thousands of pounds. This means it's almost impossible to find out which packages are better value than others, and which might be most suitable for your family. 

Finally one year when Outlaw Dad was in hospital and I went up to help the struggling Outlaw Mom in their four bedroom house, I bullied her into signing up to an agency providing help with shopping and around the home. I went on and on about how miserable it made the Fella to see his parents in such difficulties, how happy it would make him if he thought there was someone just to come round if they needed it, not all the time. (Agencies like Linkline provide a range of domestic support to help out, some are not for profit charities.) 

Pic from ConcordExtra
A few months later we were talking on the phone and Outlaw Mom said, "Do you know what you need? You need a cleaner. That would give you so much more time to get on with things." (Aaaaaaaghghgh!!!!)

The last few years of Outlaw Mom's life were absolutely transformed by her having someone who would come in twice a week and hoover round, make the beds and wash down the bathrooms. Suddenly she had energy when we came up to visit. She went out for trips with us. In her last summer, she enjoyed going not only to the Coalport China Museum to watch Piglet construct a fabulous pottery garden, but also a long-cherished dream of taking Piglet to Cadbury World.

When she passed away suddenly, there was someone who could do shopping and cleaning for Outlaw Dad, keep an affectionate eye on him. Recently he has needed more personal care but we haven't had the same battle royal as over getting Outlaw Mom to take on a cleaner. We have been able to find someone professional to come in each morning and lend him a hand. The relief of knowing when we phone and there is no answer that he is just busy shaving, rather than possibly lying in a heap at the bottom of the stairs, is immeasurable. We hope we will be able to switch off and when we visit, we can argue about politics instead of interrogating him about what lightbulbs need changing and whether he made it to the doctor's OK for his last appointment. Not least valuable about a personal care assistant is the knowledge they have built up of local care provision. They can advise your elderly relative on what is available in the way of good support locally rather than you googling desperately for appropriate housing, social groups, exercise classes and medical attendants.

Living sandwiched between two needy generations of family is horribly stressful. The other week Outlaw Dad had to be admitted to hospital. I spent between five and one hours every day on the phone to various agencies, friends, relatives and Outlaw Dad himself. I was also getting Piglet ready to go back to school. On the last day of her holidays, when I made sure I took her to the beach even though I was grumpy with her because I was so anxious, Outlaw Dad managed to slip out of hospital, pretending to the staff that he had personal care already set up at home. On Piglet's first day back, I realised I had not got all the PE kit she needs and that the hair ties I had carefully bought early in the holidays could not be found in the mass of papers which had built up on the kitchen counters while I discussed what could be put in place to make sure Outlaw Dad was healthy and happy.

Oh, and I delivered on my part-time job competently in between phone calls and trips to shops.

Yes! I really do need a cleaner, LOL.

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