Squeezed by caregiving responsibilities, there is a growing population of people who make up what is now referred to as the “Sandwich Generation.” The term was first coined in 1981 by social worker Dorothy A. Miller to describe adult children of increasingly dependent elderly parents who are “sandwiched” between caring for their own children, or their children’s children, and their aging parents.
Even with adult children of her own, Ellen Watson has found herself juggling the caregiving of her ninety-year-old father and her grandchildren.
“I definitely feel blessed to live near my family and to be able to show up for them when they need my help,” said Watson, who was watching three grandchildren on the Friday morning when she took my call.
Watson’s father lives in Stoney Brook of Hewitt, an assisted living community that she described as “amazing because of all they do for their residents.” She moved both of her parents into the facility together eight years ago, but after her mother passed away three years ago, she has been the primary companion and caregiver for her father. She frequently visits him, runs errands for him, takes him to his appointments and, when necessary, to the hospital, where she stays with him while he’s hospitalized.
“At that age, no one should stay alone in the hospital or have to navigate the complex healthcare system alone,” Watson said. “Their memory isn’t what it used to be, and they aren’t always able to communicate effectively. So, it’s best for me to be able to stay with him and go with him to all of his appointments so I can help ensure he gets the appropriate care.”
When she’s not working her full-time job as a Court Administrator or driving her father to and from appointments, Watson can almost certainly be found taking care of her grandchildren.
“I come over here after work every week and help my son and daughter-in-law who have a two-year-old and a one-year-old,” Watson, who goes by Gamma to her grandkids, said. “I will cook dinner for them, help with bath time and help with bedtime.”
Watson’s phone rings a lot, with one of her three kids asking about her plans on an upcoming evening or weekend. In this season of her life, though, her plans are usually dictated by who needs her and where she is needed.
“I try to help out my family every chance that I get,” she said. “This past weekend, for example, I had my four-year-old grandson staying with me from College Station so his parents could celebrate their wedding anniversary.”
Thechallenge for Watson these days is when she is needed in more than one place at a time. It’s her greatest joy to be able to show up and help the people she loves most, so it’s hard to say no when there is a conflict or to say yes to the various demands and figure out how to make them all work.
“There are so many people who don’t live near their grandchildren or their aging parents, and it’s the biggest blessing of my life to be able to be an active part of all their lives,” Watson said. “I don’t want to miss a thing. I don’t take any of it for granted.”
Watson’s favorite moments are the ones when she gets to spend time with her father and her grandkids all together in the same place.
“My grandson recently had his first birthday party, and I hadn’t planned on bringing my father because he uses a walker and it’s difficult for him to get around, especially when you have a house full of young kids. But my father insisted on going with me to the party,” she said. “He recognizes that each and every moment spent with the people he loves could be the last one, and it’s a huge blessing to give him the gift of time with his family and make sure that he gets to spend as much time with his great grandchildren as he can.”
The photographs and the memories made across the generational gap that Watson bridges between her father and grandkids represent the day-to-day reality for many U.S. adults who make up the Sandwich Generation. The challenges and blessings for each person navigating this reality are all unique and vary based on age, location and circumstances. For Watson, though, she wouldn’t prefer her life right now to look any other way.
“This weekend, I will take my four-year-old grandson to Stoney Brook for a game of bean bag baseball with my father and his friends,” Watson said. “The other residents will light up with excitement when I walk in with one of the kids because some of them don’t have grandkids or family who live nearby who can come and visit them. So, we get to be everyone’s extended family for a few special moments.”