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Help! I’m Wedged in a Four-Generation Club Sandwich

How I'm flipping between a 98-year-old mom and a grandbaby.

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illustration of people squished between a sandwich
Doris Liou
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“You’re spending more time with your little baby than your big baby.” That was my 98-year-old mom’s complaint this week, after I’d spent a long weekend with my 9-month-old granddaughter.

We’ve heard all about the “sandwich generation,” those middle-aged people — primarily women — stretched thin between taking care of parents and kids. But more and more of us are dealing with what I’ll call the “Club Sandwich Generation, Panini Style.” The extra layer of bread represents a four-generation family.

With life spans increasing (minus a situational dip from COVID-19), it’s not uncommon for many of us who are ourselves collecting Social Security and filing Medicare claims to also be ping-ponging between eldercare and childcare.

The number of caretakers who are 50 or older is on the rise. Roughly 19 percent of the country’s 53 million unpaid caregivers fall into this age group, up from 13 percent in 2004, according to the 2020 “Caregiving in the U.S.” report by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP.

The report also shows that compared with 2015, a greater proportion of older adults are providing care to multiple people now, with 24 percent caring for two or more recipients, up from 18 percent in 2015. Let me be clear: I am not the primary caretaker for either my mom or my granddaughter. My mother has home health aides, and my granddaughter is in childcare four days a week while my daughter works. But even providing partial support — both physical and emotional — leaves me feeling not only stretched but also guilty that I’m failing someone.

I want to be there for my mom, who needs help with just about everything. It takes me only 30 minutes to drive to her house. I’d also like to be present for my daughter, who could use a hand. She’s a 40-minute drive away. And I want to be there to enjoy my grandchild while I still have the energy to do so.

And I’d like to be more emotionally present for my son, who lives across the country and whom I miss terribly. And my husband, who is 70, could also enjoy more attention from me. Did I mention that I’m still working part-time?

When people hear I have a 98-year-old mother, most respond with “Bless her heart!” and “You are so lucky to have her!” Many women would give anything just to be able to talk to their mothers one more time. I feel that way now about my dad, who died five years ago. I get it.

And, of course, I love my mom. She often makes me laugh out loud. I dread the day that I can no longer hear her say, “Katie,” with that slight Southwestern twang from her Texas roots. But my mother is not, and has never been, easy.

My mother is legally blind and has digestive problems, but overall, she’s in remarkable shape. Her memory isn’t quite what it was, but her mind remains sharp. Last week I took her to the doctor, and as I’m guiding her out of office, she grumbles, “I’m so sick of people telling me I’m amazing for my age!” Her doctor has given her a clean bill of health. “Amazing?” she snorts. “I can’t see a damn thing. I can’t eat anything I like. My friends are all dead. What’s so amazing about that?”

Pointing out that she has three devoted kids, good health and financial stability that allows her to live in her own home and employ round-the-clock health aides, is not helpful. It only makes her belligerent. “You try being 98,” she says.

Fast-forward to the next day. I’m with my granddaughter, Annie. We are sitting together in her playpen, and it’s time for a diaper change. Today’s challenge: Do I step over the side first and bend down to hoist my granddaughter out of the playpen, risking possible damage to my herniated disc?

Or do I attempt to get up from the floor while holding the baby and step out of the playpen while carrying her, which means I can’t grab anything else to keep my balance during what feels like a high-wire act. I’m not even addressing what it feels like to simply get up off the floor after sitting there for an hour.

Tomorrow, I’ll deal with my mom’s bill paying. But I also want to continue searching for a special allergen-free baby formula for Annie. Last week I visited eight different stores before finally locating some generic powder formula that might work. Due to the national baby formula shortage, the amount I could buy was rationed.

I just got off the phone with my mother. Yes, I fixed her tape recorder. (She thinks I’m a genius. All it needed was a battery.) Yes, I can give her another lesson on her Jitterbug phone. (Hopeless — she can’t see the buttons.) No, I can’t come over this afternoon. Maybe tomorrow.

Meanwhile, my daughter just texted a short video of Annie playing in a cardboard box. I’m yearning to crawl in there with her.

Witnessing both ends of the life cycle simultaneously is both enchanting and heartbreaking. My mother’s world contracts as my granddaughter’s expands. Baby Annie gains words as my mother loses them. Annie pulls herself up to a stand; Mom carefully lowers herself to lie down. Annie is growing. Mom is shrinking. Every week, Annie explores new challenges, tastes new foods and masters new tasks. Every week, my mother seems to have less interest and fewer abilities in her life. Both have trouble articulating their needs. Both wear diapers. And, with almost a century between them, both are deeply loved by and connected to me.

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