As the joy of summer holidays start to fade and we return to our daily routines of work, school runs and family life, it struck me how many of us may be facing the challenge of ageing parents at the same time as dealing with raising and supporting children. This relatively new phenomenon is labelled the Sandwich Generation.
Coupleworks clients often say it seems as if it is something that creeps up on us – the idea that we may have to parent one or both of our parents, often due to divorce, widowhood, ill health or dementia. Whatever situation we find ourselves in, the change of roles from being cared for to being the carer to parents as well as our own children and often grandchildren brings with it a huge wave of different and sometimes unpredictable emotions.
It’s hard seeing parents becoming more frail and vulnerable when it seems like yesterday they were strong and robust and in many cases, taking care of you. Sometimes a sense of obligation and wanting to control is a way of coping with the inevitable loss of a much-loved parent. Feelings of shame are sometimes overwhelming when we express frustration and anger towards parents who are no longer able to respond in the way they used to and require so much more of our time and attention.
Coupleworks clients often express feelings of being pulled in so many directions and this can bring up lots of difficulties between a couple.
If you don’t live close by, how much time is taken up worrying about how they are coping and feeling guilty because there is not enough time to visit more often.
Are they able to manage on their own? Can they look after their own financial affairs? Are they safe enough to drive the car? Are they calling more often? Does there seem to be more accidents in the home? Do they need more advice and seem less and less independent?
How does a partner give continual support at these crucial times when it feels like there is constant competition for attention and care that is going elsewhere?
This can also be a time when our relationships with siblings can be severely tested. When old familiar roles get raised and we tend to revert to patterns of behaviour with parents from our childhoods. Does the eldest child take charge which can bring out feelings of resentment from younger siblings? Do younger siblings often feel the need to be looked after and feel excluded from parental care? How can we continue to give the care and attention to our children and grandchildren when our parents needs become more pressing and demanding?
Be aware of the knock on effects that taking on a caring role can bring. Does it mean we need to cut back on work, reduce our social lives in order to spend more quality time with parents, in some cases to make up for opportunities lost in the past?
How can we manage all these roles without feeling frustrated and resentful? After all you may have had parents who spent most of their lives caring for you and now they need that extra support, its not always easy to find that love, care and generosity when there is so much going on.
As our parents and family members are living longer, we have to find ways of looking after ourselves better too.
At Coupleworks we are often faced with helping clients work through this complex and difficult as well as rewarding time.
Here are a few tips to help manage the situation:
Don’t be afraid to ask for help – Make sure you give yourself time to find out all the help there is out there from your GP to social services, occupational therapists and carers associations.
You can’t do it all – when a crisis hits, there is a tendency to go around like a headless chicken as you try to come to terms with the changes in your family dynamic. Once the practical things are in place, try to make the time just to talk calmly about what they need right now. Its very difficult for parents to accept that they need to depend on you more, especially if that hasn’t been so for most of your relationship.
Take things slowly – baby steps. What needs to be put in place now, may need to be changed if and when the situation settles down.
Allow parents to talk about how they feel – Don’t be afraid to listen to parents’ feelings and thoughts. It may be difficult to listen to but it’s important that they are able to feel they can talk about their fears and anxieties.
Share your feelings with your partner or close friend.
Don’t feel you have to cope on your own. Reach out to those who are closest to you. Don’t shut everybody out. Often a problem shared is a problem halved.
Work together with your siblings – if you have siblings, use them for support and discuss how you can help each other to work through this tough time. If you are an only child, make sure you have friends and other family members who you can rely on to be there for you to talk things through with or ask for help
Look after yourself – try to keep doing what your were always doing. Make sure you are getting enough sleep and eating properly. You may not be able to do it with the same frequency but stopping your exercise routines, your lunches with a girlfriend and short breaks with your partner will NOT enable you to face this role reversal and cherish every moment you can with a parent while you can.