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Can We Be Saints of the Sandwich Generation?
By: Gloria Hutchinson
When my mother died of cancer in 1994, she left behind an “orphan.” He was 80 and beginning to lose his way. Pop needed parenting, and we were the likely candidates. The Fourth Commandment loomed in large stone-carved letters as we faced honoring our father while supporting our son in college, continuing our full-time jobs and regularly traveling across three states to provide for Pop’s care.
Even though I preceded the baby boomers (born 1946-1964) by a few years, I can empathize with “the sandwich generation.” It is an apt label for the adult children who are getting squeezed like deviled ham between their elderly parents and their at-home children. Millions of Americans are currently attempting to manage their parents’ financial, medical, legal, social and domestic needs, while supporting their children to one degree or another.
As Catholics, we do not have to wonder about what is expected of us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say about the responsibilities of grown children to their parents: “As much as they can, they must give them material and moral support in old age and in times of illness, loneliness, or distress” (#2218). Notice the wisdom of “as much as they can.” My husband, our son and I struggled to do our best in providing for Pop as his dementia worsened. I repeatedly had to consult my conscience and cling to my rosary in deciding how much we could do and how much had to be done by paid surrogates. Neither of my siblings was available to help out.
Lack of support is a common complaint of the sandwich generation in whom resentment may rise like yeast dough. We need help. What we often get are critical questions from the sidelines about what is being done for “poor Mom” or “poor Dad.” We need rest. What we often get are desperate calls in the middle of the night from worried elders and cancellations from caregivers who need time off.
Sustaining the Sandwich People
Some parishes have already recognized the sandwich generation as fertile ground for pastoral care. Those who are parenting their children and nursing their parents can be bowled over by multiple expectations from young and old alike. The wise and compassionate Christian community offers educational workshops on elder care and provides respite care and spiritual support groups to sustain the sandwich people.
The wise also recognize the daily lives of this caregiver group as a graduate school for saints-in-progress. Having been nourished as children by our parents’ love, we now gladly take up the vocation of shepherding them as their needs require.
We welcome the opportunity to embody Sirach’s proverb: “With all your heart honor your father, and do not forget the birth pangs of your mother” (7:27). We redouble our commitment when we hear, “Do not cast me off in the time of old age; do not forsake me when my strength is spent” (Psalm 71:9).
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As we accompanied my father through the inevitable stages of semi-independent living, at-home care and, finally, a skilled nursing facility, we grew closer to him in his weakness than we had ever been in his strength. By the most elemental forms of service (changing his ostomy bag, wiping doughnut crumbs off his face, reading aloud from his book of classic cowboy movies, surprising him with his favorite Lindt chocolates), we advanced in wisdom, grace and spiritual age.
I knew that I would never have survived the 12-year journey with my sanity intact and my sense of humor undepleted had I not been refreshed by God’s grace every step of the unforeseen way. A primary channel of that grace in my life was the guidance and companionship of the saints.
For those of you who find yourselves in the middle of that generational sandwich that both feeds and depletes, here are a few tips from the friends who saw me through.
Saints’ Survival Tips
¦ Be generous. When I wondered how much would be required of me, Hans Urs von Balthasar advised, “When you say Yes to God unconditionally, you have no idea how far this Yes is going to take you.”
¦ Be compassionate. When I fretted about how little time I had left for my friends, Mother Teresa of Calcutta kindly observed, “Maybe in our own family we have somebody who is lonely, sick, or worried.... Are we willing to give until it hurts...or do we put our own interests first?”
¦ Be patient. When I muttered angrily about those who seemed to care so little for Pop, Francis of Assisi calmly noted, “Where there is patience and humility, there is neither anger nor vexation.”
¦ Be self-respecting. When I became depressed over my lack of time for spiritual reading, Charles Borromeo pragmatically advised, “Do not give yourself so completely that you have nothing left for yourself.”
¦ Be playful. When I took my duties as caregiver so seriously that I forgot how much Pop enjoyed teasing about his “clear conscience” that allowed him to sleep like a baby, Thomas Aquinas advised, “It is requisite for the relaxation of the mind that we make use, from time to time, of playful deeds and jokes.”
¦ Be prayerful. When I lost sleep over my inability to do all for Pop that I thought I should, Martin Luther piped up with, “Pray, and let God worry.”
¦ Be loving. When my supply of loving service seemed inadequate to my father’s needs, Dominic Savio gave me a shoulder to lean on with, “Nothing seems tiresome...when you are working for a Master who rewards even a cup of cold water given for love of Him.”
For all of us saints-in-training, this is advice that will see us through the sandwich generation and all the way to that final banqueting table where the banner over us, our parents and our children will be love.
Permission to Publish received for this article, “Can We Be Saints of the Sandwich Generation?” by Gloria Hutchinson, from Rev. Joseph R. Binzer, Vicar General, Archdiocese of Cincinnati, 8-4-2008.
Gloria Hutchinson is the author of numerous books on prayer and spirituality, including Six Ways to Pray From Six Great Saints. She is the former editor of the A Retreat With... series and a longtime contributor to Homily Helps (St. Anthony Messenger Press). She lives with her family in Glenburn, Maine.
By: Frank Frost
■ What is your experience of the sandwich generation? Are you a piece of bread, the stuff in the middle or a support to someone in one of these roles?
■ How well are you managing the care of yourself while caring for others? How well does your faith community support you in these efforts?
■ Commit to praying to one of the saints for assistance and working to better integrate their wisdom into your life.
Movie depictions of elderly parents tend to be romanticized or amusing. But The Savages is a multilayered depiction of a sister and brother assuming the care of their elderly father when his health begins to fail. The 40-ish siblings, with the family name of Savage, both struggle with their own lives. Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a professor of theater in Buffalo. Wendy (Laura Linney) is a would-be playwright living in New York City, working as a temp. Their father (Philip Bosco) makes his home in Arizona. Geographical distances also represent emotional distances.
Stress lines begin to show almost immediately when the kids must decide where their father is going to live. As they debate it, Jon puts it baldly, “Do you want to change his diaper?” Neither child is in a position to care for their father directly, particularly since he has dementia. Realistically, the only choice is a nursing home. But as they work through the process, their selfishness and immaturity cause great turmoil in dealing with each other, as well as with their frequently infuriating father.
This isn’t always an easy film to watch. It has some rough language, non-explicit sexual encounters and references to fecal matter. But it’s also remarkably tender.
The kids’ emotional struggles in dealing with their father are interwoven with their own struggles to make sense of their lives, which lack close personal relationships. This is no doubt rooted in the distant relationships they’ve had with their parents. These struggles will finally be resolved through learning to care for their father, reflecting the old saw that we first become adults by learning to care for ourselves, but ultimately by learning to care for others.
Next time you watch The Savages, ASK YOURSELF:
By: Joan McKamey
■ How does facing the challenges of caring for their father lead to new maturity for Jon and Wendy?
■ Do I understand caring for an aging parent as a noble duty, a responsibility that can bring me emotional rewards and growth, or something else entirely?
“Every day I come home from work, Taylor greets me with ‘I love you, Grandfather.’ What more can I ask for?” says Art Ordoqui about raising his six-year-old granddaughter.
Art and Lourdes, his wife of 37 years, have cared for Taylor from birth. Taylor’s mother, their daughter Christina, lives with them and contributes to Taylor’s care. Assuming primary care of their granddaughter, providing a home for their adult daughter and lending support to Art’s aging parents, the Ordoquis of Marietta, Georgia, juggle their own needs along with those of three other generations.
Art and Lourdes find support from the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren group at Transfiguration Catholic Church. Art told Every Day Catholic, “Most of the other grandparents are dealing with tougher situations. Many of the grandchildren have physical or mental problems—usually because of drug use by the mother.”
Christina, Taylor’s mother, helps with her care as much as her demanding work schedule allows and provides some financial support as well. This too is unusual among their group. Many of the grandparents struggle financially, and one or both of the parents may have little or no contact with their child(ren). While Taylor’s father chooses to have no contact with her, his mother and sister participate in her upbringing. The Ordoqui’s son, Art, Jr., is also a helping hand. Art says, “Taylor loves him, and he loves Taylor.”
When asked about the sacrifices they’ve made to take on Taylor’s care, Art says, “There’s no way to count them: Revise our empty-nester schedule; take her to day care, school and doctor visits; provide financial, moral and educational support. Fancy dinner? Forget it! McDonald’s? Yes.” Yet he and Lourdes quickly acknowledge that the rewards and blessings are also “unlimited.”
Art’s mother and stepfather live 13 hours away in Miami, Florida. His stepfather has recently begun treatment for cancer. Art says, “Being away excludes me from the day-to-day care, but not from the emotional issues. My wife and I wish that we could do more. We do keep in constant contact with them. I have a brother and his family who live in Miami, and they provide the majority of the care.”
Art has assisted in the support of his parents since he began a paper route at age 13. So, as their needs increase with age and illness, it’s natural for Art and Lourdes to offer their care and support. Lourdes says, “Being Hispanic, we tend to have family involved in all aspects of life. When one is down, the other chips in to help.”
Having already raised their two children, Art confesses, “I’m not looking forward to Taylor’s teen years.” Lourdes explains, “When Taylor starts driving, Art will be 70.” They naturally have concerns about “realistic challenges” of aging and raising their young granddaughter. Of the many layers of the sandwich of their lives, Art says, “It’s a challenge, but I take comfort that God is at our side.” Lourdes adds, “We have to have faith and count on our friends and family.”
By: Jeanne Hunt
Bill takes his mother for their Sunday mall walk and supper at the food court. Leaving the nursing home, she says, “Let’s hurry! I’m wearing someone else’s clothes!” Bill knows that the clothing she’s wearing belongs to her. She just doesn’t remember them as hers. Bill’s heart sinks. Watching his mother’s mental and physical decline is a grief by inches.
These Sunday visits are precious yet difficult. Bill aches to have just one hour with the vital woman who raised him, but she’s no longer there. Bill feels both guilt and dread as he realizes that, Sunday by Sunday, he’s helping his mom write her life’s final chapter.
Our culture seeks quick solutions to every problem. Yet the challenge of being attentive to old age and death isn’t resolved with a quick fix. Baby boomers are in the middle of caring for aging parents and thriving children. There are no easy solutions.
By: Jeanne Hunt
To admit that our parents are old and ailing means admitting that we will eventually walk the same path. Our own mortality stares us in the face every time we look into the faces of those who gave us life. So, it’s tempting to keep the aged at arm’s length.
In the “good old days,” grandparents often lived in the family home with one or two other generations. They were loved and cared for until death. Grand-children and children alike enjoyed the memories they shared. Everyone in the house journeyed the final chapters with the aged and infirm. The phenomenon of the “sandwich generation” didn’t seem to exist.
Today we live in a different world: Single-family homes, working parents and children’s activities have contributed to many grandparents living in senior residences and small apartments. I offer some wisdom from the past as a solution to sandwiches made of generations: Bring the older generation home to visit. Restore Sunday suppers that include multiple generations.
Take the grand-children for frequent visits. Encourage the extended family to join in caring for the aged. When we bring our aged parents into the family circle, everyone receives a grace.
A few weeks later, Bill wonders why he didn’t do this long ago. His mom sits in his living room holding her great-grandchild. Both of them are laughing. The family gathers for a new tradition—old-fashioned Sunday dinners. Bill notices something different about his mother: Her beautiful eyes are smiling for the first time in months. She’s right where she belongs—in the midst of all their hearts.
(for praying alone or with others)
Preparation: Ask each participant to trace and cut out a handprint. Have them write the names of their family members on the hands. Arrange the hands in a circle around a Christ candle on the prayer table.
“Gather Us In” by Marty Haugen
“O Divine Source of all life, we bow in adoration before you. You give us the innocence of new life and the wisdom of old age. All things connect in your harmonious plan. It is a circle of life that reveals your circle of love, ever constant, ever renewing. Amen.”
“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.”
“Blessed be the name of God, who sustains life from birth to old age.
Blessed be the new mother and father who generously give their lives in love to their newborn.
Blessed be the child who honors and obeys her parents.
Blessed be the adolescent who dares to believe in visions.
Blessed be those in midlife who dare to follow their dreams.
Blessed be the old ones who rejoice in each day as a gift.
Blessed be the sick and dying who walk in the Paschal Mystery.
Blessed be everyone, everywhere, all of us a part of the circle of life.
You are invited to end our prayer by removing your handprint and praying for your family members in silence.”
Pause in silence for a few moments.