On Aging: Stuck in the Middle With You (and you, and you, and you...)

There’s a ton of us stuck in the middle together. Even just among myself and my friends, it would take more than the fingers and toes on both sides of my body to count the number of us who are trying to balance caring for aging parents with the needs of other relationships with our spouses, our children, our grandchildren. 

Not to mention, our own very personal needs and desires.

BALANCE is the key word to maintaining our equilibrium in the middle of this see-saw. It always feels a little precarious for me, and in the past week, one end of mine came to a thud on the ground. My mom had a fainting spell on Saturday morning, and asked that I take her to Emergency. This is in and of itself an unusual request - my mother hates anything to do with medical procedures, and will avoid them at all costs. But she has not been feeling well for a couple, so this episode scared her, and she was more than willing to go to the hospital. Luckily, it was as pleasant an experience as one can have in the ER on Halloween afternoon. It was relatively quiet, we were seen quickly and the docs determined the episode was most likely due to a combination of dehydration, a bit of anemia, and hypotension. We followed up with her primary care doctor on Monday, and decided to arrange some home PT to help her improve her strength and balance. 

Then she asked her doctor to prescribe a walker. He raised one eyebrow. “Of course,” he said. “But let’s have the PT evaluate you for the best possible one."

Later, as she was having her blood drawn, he spoke to me in the hallway. “I was kind of surprised about the walker request,” he said. 

“Me too,” I agreed. “She has been so set against that until now. But I think she’s feeling increasingly fragile. So many of her friends have either died or gone into assisted living. I think she’s afraid."

“Well, let’s keep an eye on that,” he answered. “Let’s try to get someone coming into the house once in a while, and give her something to do."

So as my mother becomes more and more dependent, my position in the middle becomes more and more “stuck.” That sounds harsh, and of course I’m consumed with guilt just thinking about it. 

But “stuck” I am. 

This middle-ness takes a lot of courage and forgiveness and strength. It takes a hard toll on relationships - I’m extremely lucky to have a partner who was himself once stuck in the middle with his own parents, who loves my mother like his own, and is understanding about the sacrifices we have to make. 

At least he has been so far. Because our life plans are in a holding pattern. We have never spent the time in Florida we wanted to, even when we had a beautiful home there. We haven’t traveled anywhere for more than four or five days because I don’t feel comfortable leaving her for longer, especially when she is babysitting the dogs.  We actually say to ourselves that we’re “stuck” here in Michigan until such time as my mom no longer needs my daily presence. And of course, we all know when that will be.

I blame myself constantly for this situation. Me and my cursed need to take care of everyone and be in control of everything, my far reaching and deep seated desire to be the “good girl” and do what my parents expect of me. I have, in fact, been “stuck” in this middle my entire life, making most of my decisions based on what my parents - and even my grandparents and in-laws -  wanted for me or needed from me. So I wonder sometimes how long my husband will be willing to wait, as he experiences health challenges of his own and is drawing very close to the age when he could retire.

More often than not, the middle of my situation skews heavily on the side of eldercare, which means that my child and now my grandchild get short shrift. I don’t see my son or my grandson nearly enough, and I fear that it’s already too late to have the kind of relationship with either that I so desperately want. That side of the see-saw is always up in the air. And my thoughts are always focused on age and its resulting debilities and quandaries, it’s inevitable end and the long and winding road it takes to get there with all the bumps and bruises along the way. I really want to think about LIFE for a change, and the kinds of positive things I can do with what’s left of mine.

Social research talks about the “sandwich generation,” a term that’s been coined to describe people who are caring for an elderly parent while still raising children of their own. But this "sandwich generation" refers to the demographic of people aged 40-59 who have children at home and a parent or parents over the age of 65. That puts me in a completely different category altogether. Those of us who are in our 60’s and caring for parents in their 80’s and 90’s have a different set of concerns. Our own health, our ability to retire from work and spend time pursuing other passions, our desire to be with our own children and grandchildren, who so often live far away. 

Of course I know there are resources and alternatives for my mom that would make life safer for her and easier for me. There are numerous assisted living options, home care providers, etc. But this must be managed and arranged, and all balanced (again with the balance!) with my emotional baggage. 

There’s no easy way to squirm out of this middle position. These days, I feel as if I’ve been here most of my life, between parents, grandparents, in-laws, my aunt and uncle. You’d think I’d have found a comfortable spot by now. Truthfully, the seat is getting more and more uncomfortable, and I’m feeling a little antsy. 

At least I know I have lots of company.