On Being Sandwiched

          As we were, so you are.

          As we are, so you will be.

                – Sign in the crypt of the Capuchin Order, Rome, Italy

You see some odd things as you travel and one of the oddest is the crypt of the Capuchin Friars in Rome.  It is a multi-room collection of the bones – some still full skeletons – of more than 3700 Capuchin Friars and others, assembled in various displays that in some ways are morbidly artistic.  The captioned quote is on a sign in one of the rooms and serves as a graphic reminder to the tourist of the fleeting nature of life.  I saw the sign during a family vacation several years ago and noticing it served as the cherry on a thoroughly bizarre day.  But the full import was lost on me until I became sandwiched between the youngsters and an elderly parent.

For most people, life is a Bell Curve and the plateau for the total person – mental, physical, emotional – is typically reached during middle age.  When you have kids, you’re at or near the top of your game and can focus on raising them, bringing them along and preparing them for their own adulthood.  It is hard work, as the Wall Street Journal noted in a groundbreaking article some years agoseriously, when I first read the article years ago, I actually looked at the title and exclaimed “well, duh” – and when you have more than one young child, the work explodes on a seemingly exponential level.  But that work is also played out against a backdrop of anticipation, hope, love and at times, pure joy.  But there will come a time when the Bell Curve starts to slope downwards and while you are still approaching, at, or near the plateau, your own parents will start to descend that slope.  The parent’s decline can be gradual and it certainly doesn’t occur across all the phases – mental, emotional, physical – of the person.  But there can and probably will come a time when there’s a break in the elder parent’s descent and it goes beyond the capacity of one or both parents to manage it in the moment.  Falls that once would have left a bruise now leave a break and if the parent is sufficiently elderly, the break can create a cascade effect flowing further to the downside.  Middle-aged moments of forgetting what you needed from upstairs become senior moments of forgetting to turn off a gas range or even where you live when you take a walk.  These are the situations that bring the phone calls soliciting help from the elders and lead to an entirely new dimension of adulthood:  parenting your own parent.

The slang term for the situation is being sandwiched because of the pressure that’s felt from being responsible for both sides.  While it makes sense on one level, it’s also deceptive.  What’s really happening is that you’re simultaneously being stretched as the demands of each surrounding generation pull you in one direction and then in another.  If you’ve waited to have children until you’re older, then the stretch is even more pronounced as you might find yourself visiting both pediatrician and geriatrician in the same week.  Trying to juggle making an appointment for the kid with the work schedule?  Now toss in having to make an appointment for your infirm father and the tension from the stretch becomes palpable.  As the American family has gone nuclear and mobile, creating physical distance between the adult generations, the response has been a budding growth industry for assisting the elderly when the adult children are absent.  The elderly with sufficient assets can enter full-spectrum retirement communities able to meet their needs as they age; the parents can purchase a cottage and if and when the need arises, they can then shift to an apartment and later, be assured of a bed in assisted-living or skilled care.  Want to stay at home?  Purchase a chairlift for the stairs or modify the bathtub to account for increasing issues with balance.  Hire a person to come visit for periods of time to combat the cumulative effects of isolation upon the mental faculties. 

There’s a downside to this however and my wife noted it, in of all places, a commercial for Priceline.com.  The gist of the commercial was that another market segment for discount travel was for those who needed to get to elderly relatives quickly and inexpensively, because emergencies don’t allow the luxury of planning six months ahead for the best rates.  In the commercial, an elderly woman was hiring someone to do repair work and the contractor was then coaxing her out of her social security number.  That came on the heels of a recent phone conversation between my wife and her own mother, who’d related how an upset elderly neighbor had visited, frustrated that she had allowed herself to divulge her bank account information and number to an unknown person on the phone.  This isn’t to necessarily imply that all businesses oriented towards the elder market are shady, because they aren’t.  But it is a real and added concern for the adult children because they don’t want to see their parents manipulated and gulled.

There is a common factor amongst the previous two paragraphs and it’s one of which I am highly mindful as I look ahead:  assets.  We’ve predicated our family structure and society upon a model that requires assets for optimal performance.  Americans are living longer and encountering aging issues that didn’t exist before simply because people died before they could reach the point at which the issues became relevant in the aggregate.  But the American family isn’t in the same situation as it was during our grandparent’s generation.  The costs of healthcare and higher education are disproportionately higher relative to family income than two decades ago, yet the family and individual now must bear a greater burden than before…and on a family income that is, in the aggregate, declining.  The private assets simply aren’t there to support such a model for more than another generation and it’s already leading to generational warfare between the likes of AARP and the Millenials as squabbling begins for the allocation of public assets.  While raising children can bring the emotions of anticipation, hope and joy, what I honestly feel as I look forward isn’t tension, but foreboding.  On a personal level, is this something I can expect?  Debility and dementia?  Frustration and fear because I might be increasingly incapable of navigating a technological system that’s opaque to an elder American for its complexity?  Hell, I have difficulty figuring out the new smartphone already…what’s going to happen when I’m three-quarters deaf and expected to walk through an automated phone registration system for some program or another?  As my late grandmother used to say, being old ain’t for sissies.

That leads to the last aspect of being stretched.  The model for aging in America will have to change and as we grope our way forward to whatever that new model is going to be, it’s incumbent upon me to figure out how to model an appropriate behavior upon which my own children can draw as they move into adulthood.  My own parents dealt with their parents from a nuclear family’s distance of 225 miles, although one parent had a sibling nearby to her mother.  Until the bitter end, it was managed via phone calls and the occasional visit to handle business and it’s not terribly far removed from the way that many of their peers managed as well.  But the stresses of American society are such that it’s not so operative anymore and it will be better for all involved if the kids are more closely attuned to their parents’ situation, even if they aren’t necessarily living down the street.  How often can I make medical appointments?  How do I honor a parent’s desire for independence and yet assure safety for the parent and others?  What arrangements must I make if I’m responsible yet want to take a week vacation with the family?  How do I manage my own frustrations as ancient issues resurface after decades of living on my own as an adult?  What must I do to prepare so that I can be on good relations and make their own way easier as they eventually move into this role?

I’m a parameters guy.  I don’t believe that there’s any one perfect way of addressing any situation.  You determine the parameters within which you have to work and then figure out a mechanism that’s best for the given set of parameters and even then, it’s not going to be perfect.  But I’m mindful that the parameters within which our country has operated are changing and doing so rapidly and that simply is creating additional pressure because we’re now in the position of not just being sandwiched between generations, but being sandwiched between systems.

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