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Father reflects on entering the sandwich generation

April 28, 2017

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, April 26, 2017

Recently my mother took ill. She has been in relatively good health and recently celebrated her 75th birthday at her 55-plus, residential community. So, when my sister called to report my mother was in an ambulance, and possibly had suffered a stroke, I was surprised, and scared.

Fortunately, my mother’s condition quickly stabilized while she received a few days of great care in the hospital, followed by a week in a rehabilitation center. She then returned to independent living, where she received a couple of weeks of home care visits.

And so I found myself, along side my generational peers, a member of the sandwich generation, pressed between the need to care for both young children and aging parents. And while I initially felt some panic and stress from this double responsibility, I also have come to appreciate a few unexpected gifts, which accompanied this unexpected, yet predictable, episode.

First, I am grateful for my sister’s astute perception and quick action. She was speaking to my mother by phone and noticed my mother was struggling to speak and think clearly. Immediately suspecting a stroke — despite the fact that my mother has never experienced one — she called the front desk at my mother’s residential community and requested a room check. They shared my sister’s concerns and called for an ambulance.

During the following days of treatment, I chose to support from a distance, attempting to balance work, family and supporting the process in the way I thought I was best equipped. My sister texted a string of hourly and daily updates and put me on speaker phone as soon as a doctor or case manager entered the room.

With the support of my wife, Lori, who has more than 20 years experience as a health care professional — including rehabilitation of stroke patients — I was able to ask key questions and advocate for care in ways that were helpful. Even my father, more than 20 years divorced from my mother and who has a past, scary, stroke history, was able to offer timely advice to me, which I immediately put to use when on the phone with the cardiologist.

Our family is no stranger to pain and separation, bearing bruises from past hurts and unresolved conflicts. Yet, during this brief episode, we pulled together to function as a team, effectively managing a difficult situation, an unfamiliar — yet welcome — experience.

With my mother quickly returning to her daily routines, my focus has shifted forward. In many ways, we were fortunate — this time — since the impact of her stroke was relatively mild, a great blessing indeed.

But I also learned that she had neglected to put her legal affairs in order, an unsettling thought in the wake of this recent scare. First, I felt some judgment about my mother’s inactions, followed by resentment with the thought that I was the person best positioned to support her with putting together end-of-life plans. Then I realized that Lori and I had not fared any better in this endeavor.

To Lori’s credit, she has been encouraging us to create a will and other health care plans – pushing, prodding and pulling together resources. But I have presented a string of excuses — for years — thus preventing us from completing basic plans designed to ease the burden of managing important life and death circumstances.

Reflecting on the recent situation with my mother has created greater urgency for me to work with Lori to put our own legal plans in place. So, with our 10 and 7 year-old Zoe and Adam clamoring for our attention, we have been discussing and learning about the basics of estate planning, including health care proxies, advanced medical directives and living wills, as well as financial powers of attorney and wills.

And while we have yet to fully complete the process, it feels good to be working on it together, especially knowing that we are putting important protections in place for each other, and for Zoe and Adam. It also feels good to learn important information that will be useful as I seek to support my mother with her own legal planning.

This recent experience, both caring for our young children, and supporting my aging mother, helped us grow closer as a family, not pull us apart. And while the road ahead will surely be more complicated, I am learning that life in the sandwich generation includes unexpected blessings, too.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

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