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Blue Plate Special

by Julia Sneden

     These days we hear a lot about the sandwich generation, that group of people caught in the middle between elderly parents and grown children and grandchildren. Having said goodbye to our parents many years ago, weve made lives for ourselves that include the old folks only on holidays or birthdays (or at times when we need a quick loan). And now we are shocked to find that they need us. A friend who is an anthropologist calls this a transactional relationship: i.e. they take care of you when you are small and need them, and you take care of them when they are old, and need you.
      The pundits tell us the problem is that people are living longer, healthier lives, often outliving their savings. What looks like a lot of income at retirement loses its power as the years roll by and inflation eats away at it. Consider that twenty years ago, youd have been thrilled to have the merely adequate salary you make today, and twenty years from now, that same amount may well seem like peanuts.
      Getting old is hard enough. Being old and sick and poor is too frightening even to contemplate. For those of us who have had to step back into our parents lives with time and attention and sometimes money, dealing with the aged provides a potent cautionary tale.
      There have been times in the last few years when Ive felt not like a plain old sandwich, but like a deluxe club sandwich. Not only do we have a 29-year-old son who is back at home, plus a couple of other grown sons and two grandchildren who live elsewhere, but also the past few years have presented us with a 92-year-old father with a degenerative illness; a stepmother with Alzheimers Disease; a stepfather with heart and kidney failure; a mother who has had a heart bypass, a stroke causing near-blindness, and cervical arthritis in her neck which necessitated major surgery to lift her skull and stabilize her spine. While still in recovery from that, she fell and broke a hip.
      My father and stepmother lived across the country from us, which meant long phone calls, weekly letters, and occasional hasty trips west (hard on the family at this end). My mother and stepfather lived 80 miles away, so weekends were taken up with hasty trips and all the frustrations of trying to do business for them on Saturdays and Sundays. And Im not even going to try to describe my in-laws, and the difficulties with which my husband and his sister had to cope.
      We shouldnt have been surprised by age-related problems. Ours is a long-lived family. My great grandmother lived to be 94. Both my grandmothers died at 98. Great Aunt Julia died at 99. My mother is now 92, as was my father when he died. My husbands family boasts an 18th century ancestress who lived to be 101.
     So we should have expected to have to deal with the long lives of our parents. We certainly had good examples of how one deals: my grandfather and grandmother took care of her mother, and also of her older sister (who had a weak heart and made it only to 86!). Not only did they take care of blood relatives, they also made a home for my great aunts sister-in-law, a spinster lady whom nobody else wanted, and cared for her until her death.
      My mother, too, carried the elderly. After my grandfathers death, my grandmother and her sister came to live with us. We also had my fathers mother with us, and later on, one of my grandmothers brothers joined the group. Fortunately, the house was large enough, a big old barn of a place which rambled down a California hillside. It was a great place to grow up, if only because there was always somebody willing to pay attention to you.
      In fairness, I should note that eventually my parents divorced, perhaps partly because of the stresses of so much multi-generational living. My father continued to be responsible for his mother, and my mother took on all the rest.
     However, when all the old folks had died, and my parents became the older generation, they both announced firmly that they would not live with my brother or me.
      It seems to me that my parents generation was the first to say: I will NEVER live with my children! Perhaps they felt so hobbled by their own experiences with their parents that they couldnt bear to burden us in a similar way. Perhaps the fact that they were the first generation to have Social Security gave them a false sense of being able to make it to the end of their lives without financial disaster. Whatever the reasons, their generation has moved in droves to retirement communities, crying: Independence forever!
      I have no problem with that, as long as ones health is good. But when things begin to break down, it shouldnt be surprising that someone who is paid to care for you (along with too many others) may not do as good a job as someone who loves you and knows your tastes and your history.
      My brother and I wound up helping my father financially and my mother physically. My father died last January. My mother is living near me in a nursing facility. She is finding the adjustment hard.
      People keep telling me that I need to watch my stress level, and save time for myself, and there are days when I think Id like that. But more often I find myself remembering my mother in her prime. She supported us all; she reared two children passably, and coped with four elderly relatives and all their ills. She managed to make them feel useful and wanted, and believe me, nobody mentioned her stress level. She just dealt with what life handed her, with good humor and great style. That was no sandwich situation. That was a Blue Plate Special!



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