The “sandwich generation” -- those who have a living parent age 65 or older that are either raising a child under age 18 or supporting a grown child -- are pulled in many directions. Not only do many provide care and financial support to their parents and their children, but nearly 4 out of 10 baby boomers say both their grown children and their parents also rely on them for emotional support. When each of her three children were all less than 10 years old, mental health counselor Blaire Sharpe moved the woman who raised her, her grandmother, into her home to care for her throughout her final days.
In “Not Really Gone,” Sharpe shares the inspirational story of her close relationship with her grandmother and expands on the true meaning of love, commitment and what it means to be a mother. “My grandmother valiantly defied our family’s legacy of alcoholism and depression,” Sharpe said. “She modeled strength and wisdom to endure the most challenging of times, which I’ve always tried to emulate for my three children.”
I had a chance to interview Ms. Sharpe to learn more.
Why did you decide to write this book?
Writing has always been a way for me to process my thoughts and feelings—a form of catharsis. Many of the chapters in Not Really Gone were born of frenetic scrawls in wire-bound notebooks in an attempt to ease my despair.
My grandmother was in her late forties when I entered her life—the same age I was when she died. It is sometimes difficult for me to grasp that she had an entire life before me. I was only a portion of her experience, yet she was the most significant part of mine. As I looked back through my stacks of scrawled notebooks searching desperately to find meaning in the pain and disappointment that littered my history, it was clear that the thread that kept me tied to this earth was my grandmother.
This book honors the significance my grandmother had, and continues to have, in my life. She was there for me, holding me and guiding me, even when I was ignoring her. She showed me what love and commitment and nurturance are all about. I like to believe that all of my best qualities came from my grandmother.
Your "sandwich generation" skipped a generation from the traditional idea of grandparent-parent-child to greatgrandparent-parent-child - how do you think that made your situation unique?
That is an interesting question. The term ‘sandwich generation’ was initially coined in the early 80s and referenced 30-40 year old women who were raising children while also helping care for their parents’ needs and/or dealing with employers. But, of course, family systems are changing. People get married later; children remain in their parents’ homes often well into their 20s and the ‘sandwiching’ has become more about the financial squeeze of the generation between those older children and aging parents.
When I reflect upon my personal situation, what stands out most is the difficulty I had in finding peers who shared my experiences and struggles. My grandmother was in her late 80s and early 90s at the same time as my children were entering the world and embarking upon those huge milestones of early childhood. These were very labor intensive years – on both sides. Having given birth to my three children between the ages of 36 and 41, my peer group of new parents was often a good a decade younger than I was. Consequently their parents were also younger and not yet demanding of their energies. In fact, their parents were often helping to care for their young children, providing welcome relief from the stress of toddler and pre-school years. On the other hand, the individuals I knew who were experiencing the caretaking of their parents in increasingly demanding ways, were generally 10-20 years older than me. Their children were adults who required little from them on a daily basis. I was at a loss for finding anyone who could relate to the specific situation I was in. Imagine this: on my nightstand were books about breastfeeding, toddler tantrums, and appropriate kindergarten social behavior right next to books about choosing the right senior care facility, recognizing signs of cognitive decline in the elderly, and how to know when it’s time for your parents to stop driving.
What advice do you have for adults trying to balance time between their own children and caring for another aging adult?
If you have ever watched a Cirque de Soleil performer teetering on a balance board while holding or juggling various objects, there is constant tension in their feet, ankles, legs…all the way up through their body. There is a perpetual adjustment from side-to-side in order to maintain balance. The actual point of balance is not a place to get to and stay, it is rather a point one passes through again and again going first a little too far in one direction and then to the other.
I constantly felt guilty during those difficult years of caring for my grandmother while also caring for my young children. Everyone simply needed more from me and I did not have more to give. When I was with my grandma, I felt like I was neglecting my kids. When I was with my kids, I worried about my grandma. When my therapist reminded me I needed to take some time for myself, I just laughed.
When I was asked, “How do you do it all?” I would respond, “I don’t do it all well.” But this is important to remember: Nobody does it well, however, we all do the best we can. It is absolutely normal to feel guilty, and overwhelmed, and like you are not doing anything ‘right’ – sometimes just knowing that helps to alleviate those feelings. It is good to remember that this is just a phase, maybe a long one, but that this is what is being asked of you in your life at this time. Reprioritize and make lifestyle adjustments accordingly. Perhaps your home-cooked meals become less elaborate or you begin to carry-out from nearby restaurants and delis. Perhaps your house is a bit messier than you’d prefer. So what if the beds don’t get made every day. Something has to give, and you can decide what that something is.
It is also helpful to recalibrate what ‘time off’ means. While I, personally, did not feel right about taking an evening out with friends more than rarely, I did breathe in the solitude of going to the grocery store alone—nobody calling my name or tugging at me (it helps to turn the ringer off your phone!). I would spend just 5 minutes extra in my car as I transitioned from kids to grandma and back simply to take a few deep breaths and thank the universe for giving me the strength to do what was needed of me for another day. Rather than focusing on feeling cheated out of my own time, I told myself that this was not forever, and that my time would return to me one day.
In the end, though I imagined my kids suffered during those difficult days, they ultimately learned some valuable lessons. They watched me care for the woman who raised me and who I loved dearly, despite the inconveniences this may have caused. They learned that they will sometimes take a backseat, but that this will be temporary. I will return. Their needs will be met, eventually. They learned that this is what we do for those we love. They learned that aging and death are natural parts of life and that it is important to tell people that we love them through both our actions and our words.
And me? I learned the value of living in the present moment. When I was with my grandma, I practiced setting aside the worries about y children and instead focused on being with her. When I later walked through the door of my home, my children would rush to greet me and I would breathe in their youth and innocence with the realization that life was all too precious and short.
For more information about her book, visit http://www.blairesharpe.com.