One of the classes I took in undergrad as part of my base curriculum for my masters program in physical therapy was lifespan and developmental psychology. I actually enjoyed this class, and have laughed a bit as I recognized my children or myself in the various stages of life about which we learned.
And now I find myself in the sandwich generation. I’m in my late 40’s, just celebrating a birthday this month, and simultaneously navigating our kids into young adulthood and my parents and in-laws through the culmination of their life’s journeys.
It has caught me off guard how challenging this can be. I have all of the physical tools to help, and I’m much more prepared than the average person to advocate and help aging parents navigate the healthcare system. After all, this is a big part of what I do professionally. What I wasn’t prepared for was how this would affect me emotionally.
When you find yourself parenting your parents or in-laws, that’s when it hits you. Wow. My life is changing.
My dad had to begin dialysis at the start of the pandemic. That was rough. For my mom, that meant she had to take on all of the roles she didn’t ordinarily do in their marriage, and that brought her much anxiety. For my dad, that meant he had earned a part time job hooked up to a dialysis machine 3 times per week. For both of them, that meant realizing that traveling was no longer an easy option, and their wanderlust days were done. Covid simply added another layer of stress to this situation, since for most of this time, my mom wasn’t allowed to be with him for his multiple surgeries for port placements, etc. You may remember that last December, I helped them adopt a cat for companionship. Vaccination gave them a bit of freedom, but Delta has certainly put a damper on that sense of safety for now.
My in-laws are dealing with their own issues. I’m lucky that I love my in-laws. They are truly wonderful people, and my mother-in-law in particular is a saint. She is the quintessential caregiver, and has done this for both of her parents, keeping them out of nursing homes, for her siblings, and now my father in law. Both her sister and my father-in-law have dementia, with his caused by Parkinson’s. We are watching him slowly leave us, and I didn’t know how hard this would be. We are also helping make some choices for care for her sister who can no longer safely live alone. I know this has been just as difficult a transition for my husband as it has been for my mother-in-law.
I began the monumental task of cleaning out a room I use as my office and craft studio, previously trashed by my kids and which then became the dumping ground for everyone’s junk, and I came across a box of pictures. Some went back to my wedding, the births of my girls, and early vacations. It’s strange to physically hold photos! But many of these made me tear up. To recognize the person my father-in-law once was. To see my own dad in good health. To see images of friends and family who have since passed away. Oy.
A couple of the ones of my father-in-law really touched me. There is one photo from our wedding that was particularly lovely. It shows both my husband and my father-in-law looking toward the other side of the room, with the same exact expression on their faces, same tilt of the head, paying attention to the same cues. It’s really cute. I found a frame for it, and I placed it on my husband’s desk. Another was of him holding our first born, watching the sunset over the ocean. She was maybe 3? It was a great, candid image that I’m so grateful to have now. That one earned a frame, too.
Dementia robs bits of our person piece by piece. It happens slowly at first, and then seemingly all at once, until there is a shell of the person we used to know. This is how we are losing my father-in-law. We get glimpses of him, but that is it. Mere fleeting glimmers of who he once was. I know my mother-in-law is lonely. Even with this, he still knows she is his person. He will look for her if I’m sitting with him and he will call for her if he doesn’t see her.
When my dad first started into end stage renal disease, he was demonstrating some acute cognitive changes as well. It was frightening, especially for my mother. Thankfully, he seems to have recovered much of what was lost now that the machines have taken over the function of his kidneys and the toxins are gone. My mom still has her companion. They still have each other.
I think the biggest fear of those who are aging is losing independence. The second? Losing their life partner. It may be even more heartbreaking to be lost in the in-between.
I will continue to do my best to help my collective parents navigate all the changes they continue to encounter, all while continuing to raise and guide my daughters who are thankfully still mostly at home. It’s a strange mix of feelings, with a bit of grief mixed in. I’m losing my babies and my parents, and I’m caught between moments of denial, pride, and sadness. But at least they are all still with us.
Are you navigating the sandwich years as well? Do you have loved ones with dementia? Do you want to hear more about navigating the healthcare system in the US for our aging loved ones? I’d love to hear about it. As always, I hope you all are safe and healthy.