Living to 50 used to be a feat. Today, it’s a non-story. Many people are starting their families in their late 30s or early 40s, and the average life expectancy in this country is 76. Among other things, this means a lot of people trying to care for their parents while also trying to raise kids. This so-called “sandwich generation” is stretched thin between the pediatrician’s and geriatrician’s offices, between saving for college and budgeting for assisted living, between showing up for pillow-talk with an angsty teen and trying to navigate the adult-undergarments conversation with a parent having bowel leakage. Nobody on this ride is yelling wheeeee!
Much advice given to the sandwich generation disregards our control over time—how much we have and how we can divvy it. (You can’t will your child to nap for four hours any more than you can will your mother’s pelvic floor surgery to take 10 minutes.) Instead, you can make small changes that maximize your time. Waking up 20 minutes before the household to meditate or soak in the bath may seem small, but as with your car, fueling up takes a fraction of the time it takes to burn that fuel. So, a little extra time spent on YOU in the morning can keep you from running on fumes later. Another way to maximize your time? The calendar and reminders on your phone. These can free up a significant amount of your brain’s “must remember” space so that your meditation, morning cuppa joe, calming bath—whatever recharges you—isn’t spent inventorying your to-do list.
Time is just part of the equation. What about your energy? People often compare caring for an aging parent to caring for a very young child. But pregnancy and childbirth surge a woman’s body with energizing, nurturer hormones like oxytocin and prolactin. Middle-age and aging parents do not. And men? Well, pregnancy isn’t even an option! Fortunately, laughter, exercise, and good sleep can all boost your body’s natural happy-making chemicals, too. Can’t listen to a funny podcast or watch a comedy show? Recent studies have shown that even fake laughter surges endorphins. You know what else works? Touch, so make a conscious effort to spend more time hugging your kids, parents, and partner. Can’t get to the gym? Playing with your dog, taking the stairs, and parking at the far end of the parking lot are all exercise. Sleep-deprived? Protect your sleep nutrition with the same fervor you would protect your child’s. Turn off the screens an hour or two before bedtime, watch what you eat and drink at day’s end, and talk with your doctor if insomnia is at play. Speaking of nutrition, stock your kitchen with easy-to-make and grab-and-go foods that are healthy and filling for those days when you’re going at a breakneck speed. If you pack a lunch for your child or your parent, pack one for yourself at the same time, so you won’t be tempted to skip meals later. And, seriously, accept meals from friends and neighbors who want to help you.
Two Birds, One Stone
If you’re in the sandwich generation, by definition, you have built-in helpers – your kids. Enlisting their help pulls double duty: lightening your load while teaching them invaluable life lessons, like what it means to be part of a family and that love is sometimes work. The financial strains of caring for an aging parent often force people to make tough choices about how they save and spend. But instead of feeling guilty that you can’t say yes to everything your child wants, feel good about having a real, rather than philosophical, reason to say no. It is out of struggle and lack, not comfort and bounty, that strength and wisdom are often born. Put your kids on your personal chain gang? No. You don’t want them to resent Grandma. But ask them to take over dishwashing duty or do their nightly reading with her? Two birds, one stone, and all to the good.
All riders need to get off this “ride” periodically and visit the other attractions: your friendships, your marriage, your pets, your spiritual life, your health, and the sundry other pieces that give your life meaning. If you need to be reminded, consider this your reminder. If you need to be convinced, ask yourself whether a wiped-out caregiver is good for your child or parent. Last but not least, forgive yourself daily for imperfection, remembering that “good enough” really is.
Founded in 1995, Beaver Dam Women’s Health (BDWH) is a women’s health clinic dedicated to providing the Dodge County community with personalized and accessible women’s health care that caters to their specific medical needs. Call 920-885-6090 for more information.