By Christy Yates, Author of “Building a Legacy of Love: Thriving in the Sandwich Generation”
Christy is an expert in supporting caregiving families, incorporating mindfulness along with other evidence-based practices to support growth, goal achievement and a pathway to overall wellness for the whole family. She is a Licensed Educational Psychologist (LEP), an author, speaker and coach in California. She retired in 2021 after 20 years as a school psychologist. Follow Christy on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
While managing the care of my parents as they aged I felt like I’d gone back in time to when my own children were toddlers. My kids were out of diapers, but my parents needed Depends. I was handing the car keys to my teenager while convincing my mother to give up driving. I was censoring my children’s foul language while my dad lost his “what’s appropriate to say” filter. There were times I had to call him on it in front of my tween and teen children while they looked on open-mouthed, or worse yet, giggled. And I can honestly say I didn’t always do this gently.
The Sandwich Generation years present us with lots of Twilight Zone-like juxtapositions.
As my husband and I managed my parents’ care, I recognized how important it was that I treat them with the dignity they deserved. They were my parents, after all, and I loved them. I also wanted my children to treat them with dignity and respect, so seeing and hearing it from me was imperative. How did I respond to my mother’s questions she asked repeatedly? Was my tone of voice as shrill as I imagined? Where was I on the patience meter today trying to get my father into the car?
Parenting and caregiving are not the same. Sure, we’re caring for our children, but we’re really not parenting our parents. We’re meeting them where they are with our care. Both my parents had some form of dementia at the end of their lives. This required a lot of patience and gentleness.
When my father had trouble finding a word, did I rush in to supply it for him, or give him a few extra beats to find it? When my children were younger, they didn’t always have the vocabulary they needed—not because they couldn’t find it, but because they hadn’t learned it yet. My dad had a wonderful vocabulary, so the struggle with word finding was much different for him. It was frustrating, but even more frustrating if I filled in too many blanks.
Our task as parents is to raise our children as they grow through somewhat predictable milestones. They need everything from us as infants. Then we watch them develop skills and take on more challenges. Rolling over, babbling, crawling, walking, and toileting. We stay up nights when they’re babies or when they have nightmares. We foster independence where we can so they’re safe in the world. We watch as they develop social skills, make a friend, fall in love, survive a crush, and endure the cruelty of adolescence. They become their own person, separate from us, even though it can feel like they are, in fact, our beating hearts.
When our parents age, the path is less predictable. Certainly, we know some common things arrive with aging such as needing glasses, possibly hearing aids, and medical care that might not have been needed previously. But aging is impacted by circumstance, more than time. Illness, accidents, falls, and disease can change the trajectory of a person’s aging experience.
As caregivers, we see the loss of independence and it can break us open. When they ask us to buy Depends, we feel their vulnerability and embarrassment. Needing us to help them to the toilet is humiliating the first time and every time. We may see cognitive skills break down or bodies break down. We witness those people who once reveled in our milestones and helped us to reach independence – who stayed up nights with us or chased our nightmares away – now needing care from us.
For both our children and parents, there is a common need for respect, patience, compassion and dignity. This is rooted in the way we interact with those we love, and hopefully everyone we meet. Listening is a biggie. Are we listening to understand or simply waiting for someone to be done talking so we can do or say what WE want? Setting limits and having solid boundaries helps us to help others without losing ourselves. How we teach or coach our children to learn new things, or help our parents adjust to accommodations makes a huge difference. Using respectful tones and language with loved ones and others helps our children learn to do the same and eases those who may feel irritable due to pain or frustration. And compassion. Always compassion.
The awareness that the grief I felt while watching my parents age could easily show up in hurtful ways helped me to become a better role model and parent for my children. I also thought, “maybe they’ll remember this for me someday.” That’s the legacy of love.