“Your mother had a fall, and she couldn’t get up,” announced Kate, a senior care adviser. “I took her to the hospital. Stay tuned.”
It was the beginning of significant changes for my mom—and my sister and me. I reacted in a way I’m not proud of, pleading with the Universe, “Mom is barely 76 years old! Aren’t we supposed to have a carefree decade after the kids leave home? It’s too early for this!” My frustration thus vented, I took a breath and sat down.
So began my initiation into the “sandwich generation,” a term that describes middle-aged adults who are sandwiched between caring for living parents and children or young adults simultaneously.
I’m not alone in feeling the pressure of being rushed into caregiving before feeling ready. Research
suggests over 41.8 million Americans provide informal, unpaid caregiving support to an adult age 50+, often leading to complex family relations, compassion fatigue, and financial strains.
Not to mention the problems of doing so during a pandemic. Or between hot flashes.
Know your limits. Being a long-distance caregiver is challenging. My mother is in South Carolina, I live in New York, and my sister resides in Texas. And when she started needing care, no one wanted to move. So what to do? We each took time to reflect on what was most important to us and what we could realistically do. And, not surprisingly, we came up short.
Admitting that you cannot possibly do everything is not a failure or lack of love. It’s damn good self-care.
When we equate doing with loving, we create a recipe for disappointment. Instead, it’s crucial to separate the two.
That’s where our angel Kate came in.
Get human help. My mother wanted to stay independent as long as possible, and we wanted to honor this. At the same time, my sister and I wanted someone nearby to help out in emergencies and keep a friendly eye open. Because while Mom could still attend to most so-called activities of daily living like bathing, cooking, and so on, some activities seemed to stress her out—such as an increasing number of doctor visits.
As a senior care adviser, Kate drove Mom to appointments, kept a notebook of essential details, and suggested useful aging resources. What’s more, she helped Mom downsize her closet and arranged for a broken couch to be fixed.
I’d be remiss not to mention that she also procured a lot of strawberry ice cream and offered charming conversations. When the time came for Mom to move to assisted living, Kate helped us realistically cut through the marketing promises of each facility because she knew them personally.
Embrace silliness. Assisting an aging parent brings one surprise after another. In one week, while I was trying to get my mother’s condo ready for sale, movers damaged the floor, painters broke the sink, and the HOA wrongly accused me of staining the hall carpet. Then palmetto bugs decided to move into the kitchen.
At wit’s end, I ended each day with a trip to a nearby store, where I chose a snarky t-shirt to wear the following day. Consequently, I now have a delightful collection: Can’t Adult Today. Donut Panic. Mercury’s Got Nothing On Me!
Somehow, this simple choice kept me from feeling too powerless, reminding me I still had free will. People also seemed to treat me more gently, as if my outward sassy attire pre-warned them that I was in a vulnerable state.
Don’t forget you have a body. When I get busy, the first thing I forget to do is eat. And because I am a compassionate eater, finding food on the road can be challenging. Packing snacks was critical. So was remembering to stretch before and after long car trips or furniture hauling.
Allow others to do for you. Informal caregiving creates an imbalance between giving and receiving. Letting others provide for you can help take the pressure off. One day a friend offered to continue packing Mom’s place when I had to return home. For over a week, she diligently bubble-wrapped and cataloged my mother’s belongings. I combatted sneaky feelings of guilt, remembering it was her responsibility to tell me when she had had enough. Instead, I focused on feeling grateful for her generosity.
[Read: “Simple Human Kindness.”]
I also found solace in receiving from strangers. For example, accepting the grocery store clerk’s offer to carry groceries to my car, letting a bank teller make me tea, and allowing a librarian to recommend a good read way outside of my preferred genres.
A favorite mid-afternoon break included heading to the car wash, allowing the track to guide my car as I physically—and metaphorically—took my hands off the wheel. Afterward, I’d head to a local park to join geese in their daily walking meditation, allowing the natural world to ground me.
Embrace new spiritual practices. I intended to catch up on podcasts and audiobooks on the many long drives back and forth from New York to South Carolina. Instead, I felt curiously drawn to Christian pop radio, singing along loudly to the easy-to-repeat refrains: No, there ain’t nothing gonna steal my joy!
Indeed, the power of fierce singing helped me vent frustrations, even if the theological outlook of some lyrics didn’t perfectly align with my spiritual beliefs. When I’d had my fill of hearing the He pronoun for God, I just reached out to the Divine’s feminine side.
Reach out to the divine mother. Turning the radio off and seeping into silent stillness, I asked her one profound question:
How do I mother my mother?
She always answered, reminding me of her many faces—Magdalene, Kali, Brigid, Tara, Yemaya, Aphrodite, Isis—steering me gently, one decision at a time.
For more on parenting your parents, check out “When It’s Time for Dad to Give up the Keys.”