Life From the Sandwich: Millennials Are Entering the Season of Caring for Children and Aging Parents

My father was rushed to the emergency room last Friday and remained in the hospital throughout the weekend.

I got a call from my mom that dad had woken up that morning unable to breathe, and in a move that was so very unlike him, he asked her to take him to urgent care. When they arrived, his blood pressure was over 200 and his blood oxygen was at a deadly 75. They rushed him immediately, via ambulance, to the emergency room.

My father is a two-time cancer surviver and is currently navigating his third round of it. The poor man has done more than his fair share of battle with this terrible disease. But on top of that, he also has Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

COPD is a chronic, long-term, and irreversible lung condition that impairs a person’s ability to breathe, and it only gets worse over time. We’ve known for a long time that the only two ways for my father to prolong his life is to stop smoking (he did), and to get on oxygen (he categorically refused).

This weekend’s trip to the emergency room would have likely been avoidable if he at least had emergency oxygen at home. But since he has always been unmoving on his position about not taking oxygen, it became a catastrophic event instead. It was a terrible, uncertain, and frightening weekend for us all.

Thankfully, I already had plans to spend the weekend with my parents before this event took place. My plan was to plead for my dad to consider getting on oxygen. I felt it was so urgent that I had already arranged for my husband to stay home with the kids all weekend so that I could have focused, uninterrupted time trying to persuade my dad to do the only thing left to save his life.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to beg or plead. His frightening near-death experience was all the convincing he needed, and at the end of his hospital stay, he came home with a permanent at-home oxygen tank and was making arrangements for his portable oxygen-compression tank.

My dad’s not out of the woods. If cancer doesn’t take him first, the COPD will. It is only a matter of time. And having to type that sentence absolutely destroys me. But it’s honest, and it’s real. I have to accept it.

This weekend served as a pivotal moment for me. Although my mom was in the room with us, I found the doctors and nursing staff directing all of their questions and instructions at me. I remember peering over at my mom and seeing her in dismay. I guess it was a pivotal moment for her, too. It was the moment we realized that I was stepping into my role as the adult child: the clear-minded caretaker who could be relied upon to make tough calls and remember important details so that my mom could focus on taking care of my dad and tending to her own wrecked emotions. My poor mom was holding it together well, but she had been with him since the moment this had all begun—hadn’t slept, hadn’t showered, hadn’t eaten. Despite all her strength and courage, I was certain it had all taken a toll on her. And I couldn’t help thinking that, although it was a strange and maybe even sad feeling to be usurped by her daughter as the official care-taker and overseer, she did feel a bit of relief that she could put down the load she’d been carrying. At least for a bit, anyway. And I was happy to step into that role.

Like many millennials, I am entering a time of my life called the sandwich. It’s the time when adult children find themselves sandwiched between simultaneously caring for their growing children and their aging parents.

I turned thirty-nine this year. My husband is fifty-four and has a chronic disease that is (mercifully) in remission right now, but we spent the first five years of our marriage doing terrible, soul-twisting battle with it every day. We have a six-year-old and an eight-year-old at home, meaning we have at least twelve more years of full-time parenting before both children will be in a place to possibly leave home (along with the fear that, at any moment and without warning, my husband’s disease could flare up again). And now, in addition to being their full-time caregiver, I am also slowly sidling into my role as a caretaker for my parents. It will be a long journey, of that I am hopeful. My mom is in excellent health and can take good care of my dad and herself for a long time, I’m sure. But from this moment on, I am officially “on call.” There will be more scary events with my dad. More hospital visits. More bad news, hard conversations, and even harder decisions. There will be grief—managing my own grief, while also caring for the grief of my mother and my children as they grapple with their loss.

There will be the reality that I may not get to grieve my dad fully the way I need to. When you’re a parent, everything is filtered through your role as mom or dad to the tiny human(s) in your care. You do your best to make time for yourself: to do self-care, to process your feelings, to journal or meditate. But all those things usually have to be shoved into compartments far too small; they must be left in the recesses of your mind until those blessed moments of alone time that are so remarkably rare. This is the reality parents cannot escape.

There is also the reality that I will eventually become the primary caretaker for my mom. She is strong, healthy, and independent to her core. There is absolutely no way that woman will let me totally take care of her. In fact, I think that even in her grief when my dad passes, she will find beauty and fulfillment in everything she does. She’s incredible that way. But the time will come when she needs me—when she’ll just have to acknowledge that life could be easier if she had someone to help her, to look out for her. We both know that time will be bittersweet.

I think most of us don’t talk enough about the sandwich season of our lives. It’s painful and dark—definitely not a pleasant thing to focus our minds on. But I think it’s important. This weekend taught me that pretending things aren’t happening doesn’t benefit me, nor does it benefit my relationships. Indeed, pretending like hard things aren’t happening only prevents me from being present in the moment. It stops me from being intentional about the time we have left.

If you’re a millennial like me and find yourself entering the sandwiched years, I hope you’ll allow yourself to feel it all. Be sad. Be angry. Be hopeful.

Admit when you’re exhausted. Accept help when people offer. Reach out when you need support.

Be honest with yourself about what’s happening. Living in a world of denial is a betrayal to yourself and to your loved ones. Embrace every bittersweet, miraculous, painful, and beautiful moment.

Every one of them is numbered, and that makes them precious.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

Check out her blog called Compassionate Feminism on Psychology Today to join a feminist conversation centered in openness, empathy, and equity.

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