An Open Letter to the Overwhelmed Writer Who Just Learned of a Parent’s Illness

Dear Fellow Sandwich Generationer:

When you found out you’d become an official caregiver for two generations of people (one older, one younger), and hence a member of the “sandwich” generation, did the news come via a phone call?

Mine did, as I sat writing in the deceptively soft, grey light of a winter morning.

It made me perilously close to becoming a cliché, too, for when I hung up, I remained at my desk as my coffee grew cold. If another person had been present to notice, or I’d had convenient access to a mirror, no doubt my gaze would have been recorded as “vacant.” For you see, among all the pressing concerns of that morning, I worried about my writing time. Would it be lost when only just claimed?

But that phone call happened a while ago and I’m doing much better than anticipated—on all counts—which is why I’m reaching out to you.

Are you out the other side of your grief yet?

I hope you know that’s what you’re experiencing at first: simple, honest grief.

All that shock, rage, guilt; all that difficulty sorting out what’s given through duty and what’s offered through love—all those emotions, especially the dark, socially-unacceptable ones that roil in your belly—those are grief, my dear. If you don’t cling to them out of misguided shame, they will pass.

Soon, life will regain most of its former texture. Soon you’ll be as irritated as you once were by the sight of dirty dishes in the morning sink. (Mr. Nobody continues to prefer the lemon squares reserved for school lunches over the fresh fruit on the counter.) You’ll still feel a stabbing chest pain when you hear teenagers squeal over Snooki’s book. You’ll thrill to see a romance friend’s new cover art with its gratuitous display of man-candy, particularly if his biceps are sculpted.

As for writing, maybe you’ll be like me in that your word count will creep up to its pre-existing level and you’ll surprise yourself, on occasion, with a well-turned phrase.

So, dear Fellow Sandwicher, right now, though you might feel like falling to your knees, casting your gaze to the sky and shouting, “Nooooo,” refrain for two reasons:

  1. Except in Jim Carrey movies, nobody appreciates this kind of overacting.
  2. You’ll want to save this gesture for the first time one of your kids brings home a dubious partner. Don’t tip your hand.

Have you decided to choose the role? If you’re going to take on the care-giving, it’ll go easier if you embrace the decision. Own it. Trust that the same qualities which allow you to be present as a care-giver will provide depth, complexity, and maturity to your writing.

If you don’t choose, you’ll risk becoming a victim. That mindset doesn’t vanish when you sit to write, read critical reviews, or receive rejections from agents and publishers.

In addition, self-pity is a convenient way to avoid putting butt in chair. Know when you’re milking the drama llama as a means of bowing to Resistance.

Being proactive and responsible means you get to make some choices which will protect your career. Namely:

  • Triage. Do what you can to delegate and outsource the non-writing work. This is a good time to let go of micromanagement tendencies. (Except about the sock force field around the laundry hamper. Don’t go soft on that.)

With respect to your writing, pick both what must be done and what is most personally fulfilling. Take note of your choices. If the day comes when things settle down and your schedule develops blank spots, you’ve gained clarity on which projects and relationship matter most.

  • Confide in the people who might be affected by your new responsibilities on a need-to-know basis. Together you can craft back-up plans for the inevitable emergencies.

Invite metaphoric cats to judiciously explode.

The reference comes from a Neil Gaiman quote: “When writing a novel, that’s pretty much entirely what life turns into: House burned down. Cat exploded. Did 1500 easy words, so all in all it was a pretty good day.”

Along with adequate sleep, rest, good nutrition, and exercise, is writing a part of your self-care? Is it a keystone habit that makes you happy and resilient? You’ll need these two qualities in the months and years ahead if you are to stay reliable and accessible to your loved one.

Claim writing as your job, even—and especially—if you’re presently unpaid.

If you don’t put your writing on the table as a “must,” why should anyone else respect it?  You’ll never get to be a pro if you act like your work is disposable or make your timetable as flexible as a politician’s ethics.

Also, due to the inherent nature of a parental illness, prepare to face all the unaddressed family dysfunctions: sibling rivalries, financial stressors, pre-existing familial roles… Congratulations. You have an opportunity for a do-over. When everything is in flux anyway, why not make healthy boundaries part of the deal?

Lastly, take heart, because you’re never really off the job. Story is everywhere.

Need examples of conflict and antagonist forces? Look no further than the family issues mentioned above. Afraid of infirmity and death? Be prepared for them to be rubbed in your face over and over. Don’t forget the strained healthcare system, apathy, and the occasional medical person who loves their job for the power trip, and who’d favor carrying a riding crop over a syringe.

Happily, you’ll find no shortage of hero material.  You won’t. Heroes are everywhere: in the cratered faces that beam when a child visits the ward; in the professionals who practice both art and science of medicine; in every person who sees past fear and limitations to craft a new normal; and in the Aged P whose illness began this whole journey in the first place.

In short, Fellow Sandwicher, you’re in for one heck of a ride. But take heart; you’ll be a pro when you’re done with the first parent. Now you only have to do it another three times.

Some of you have been caring for aging parents far longer than I. Has this been your experience? Has your writing and world shifted, yet become as solid? How have you made your sandwich experience a whole wheat one?   

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About Jan O'Hara

Jan O'Hara left her writing dreams behind for years to practice family medicine, but has found her way back to the world of fiction. Currently the voice of the Unpublished Writer here at Writer Unboxed, she hopes one day soon to become unqualified for the position.

Comments

  1. says

    Wow, Jan. You stuck the needle right into the hurt place…deep. I elected to ‘live through’ the phase instead of ‘live with’ and I regret it. What a gutsy subject to address, Ms. Fearless One.

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    • says

      Well, thank you, but I feel I have to say that this post is as much a manifesto for myself as an offering to anyone else who is struggling.

      I’ve also had a lot of teachers in this. When I was in practice, I was privileged to see the families that minimized collateral damage, even made it a position of strength. I’ve been thinking of them a good deal in recent weeks. They’re my form of Cliff Notes. ;) We all do the best we can at the time. Every one of us.

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  2. says

    I adore your posts, Jan, because they are equal parts hysterical and insane and wise. I wish, when I was a kid, I would have known to say, “When I grow up, I want to be just like Jan.”

    One of many favorite lines: “In addition, self-pity is a convenient way to avoid putting butt in chair. Know when you’re milking the drama llama as a means of bowing to Resistance.”

    Sally forth, brave sandwicher. I will be sallying alongside you in the very near future.

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    • says

      “…equal parts hysterical and insane and wise.”

      Oh, hah, Sarah!I think you came up with an alternate tagline for me. I love it. (And the high compliment. Thank you.)

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      • says

        Heh, I agree with Sarah’s description.

        My fave line from you post: “If you don’t put your writing on the table as a “must,” why should anyone else respect it? You’ll never get to be a pro if you act like your work is disposable or make your timetable as flexible as a politician’s ethics.”

        Jan, I’m so sorry about your difficult position. As you said, it’s something we all might face. The only good thing about that is, we can offer each other support. {hugs}

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  3. says

    Stuck me deep, too. I’ve already given my morning and evening writing time to daily phone calls with family and caregivers. Now wondering if I need to travel 10,000 miles to make sure she gets what she deserves, but if I do that, I leave a teenager during finals month and two younger, with a husband who travels on short notice. Seems like a no-win situation. Can’t possibly (now) incorporate this into my writing — it’s too scary.

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    • says

      I’m sorry, Nora. There are times the writing is just not possible for physical or emotional reasons. I don’t think anyone should feel guilty about taking down time. Self-care and self-respect, right? Whatever that looks like.

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  4. says

    Thank you for this post. I’ve been in the sandwich position recently, and yes, I will be again at some point in the future. All that you say is so true it hurts: I’ve managed to keep hold of my writing, but I let other things slide.

    Great post, and thanks for reaching out. I wish you all the strength and support you need :D

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  5. says

    Thank you for this beautiful post. Have had a loved one recently re-diagnosed with cancer, and I struggled with guilt because I panicked over my other seemingly trivial concerns for time.

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    • says

      One of the reasons I wanted to write this post is because of the guilt I’ve seen in so many caregivers. (And experienced for myself.) It’s the elephant in the room and made worse when we think we’re the only ones to struggle, so guilt becomes compounded with shame. In turn, that makes us less creative in our problem-solving.

      Wishing you the best with what lies ahead. Take care of yourself.

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  6. says

    While I am not a primary caregiver to my ill parents, mainly because I live 2,000 miles away, I am their health care proxies and my second ‘job’ is the medical management and frequent trips down to check in on them.

    The emotional toll of caring for elder parents is enormous. Even in the best of circumstances (I helped them move into assisted living, arranged aide care for my mom when my dad is in dialysis, got my dad into a support group for spouses dealing with loved one’s dementia) it is extraordinary stressful.

    As you say, Jan, grief is something that you can’t ignore. Because if you do, it will hollow you out from the inside. I find my grief finds its way into my writing and gets transformed there. In fact, my latest blog post is a poem I wrote after coming home from a trip to see my parents. It was written as a way of moving through my intense sadness at how her dementia has progressed in just the past 6 weeks, since my last visit.

    If poetry is not your ‘thing’, then journal. Free writing morning pages can be extremely helpful to get the emotions out on the page so you can focus on your WIP.

    For all of us in the ‘sandwich’ generation (or as I call it the taffy-pull), hugs and support.

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    • says

      You don’t have to be physically present to be challenged, do you? Just waiting for the next phone call can rob the present for the possible future. It takes time to learn to compartmentalize, and I’m not always successful.

      Great suggestions LJ. I journal, too. Couldn’t live without it.

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  7. says

    Where was this post 7 years ago? You’ve really encapsulated what we go through as members of that sandwich generation. I never thought of grief at that stage (I reserved that emotion for when my mother, mother-in-law, & close aunt died within 18 months). But you’re right. Just as we have to give ourselves permission to grieve when they’re gone, we have to admit it’s okay to grieve the loss of our former lives when they become ill & need help. I think we have to accept what we can give to the aging/infirmed parent. We have to admit we can’t do it all. Prioritizing our commitments is essential. Do the best we can and put the brakes on guilt. I know, easier said than done.

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    • says

      I’m sorry you’ve had so much practice! I’m glad to hear the voice of experience saying this post resonates, though. Thank you for that.

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  8. says

    A lovely post from a damn fine woman. Jan, you articulate things so well and as another mentioned, this applies to almost everything in life. And I for one, needed to hear this.

    I wish you and your family well and am glad to hear things are smoothing out and hope it continues to do so.

    Your parents are blessed to have you!

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    • says

      Sheesh, Michelle, thank you so much. You’ve got me blushing.

      And one of my regrets with this post is that I didn’t specify how much help I’m getting with extended family. Not everyone has the luxury of that kind of support. I

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  9. says

    The problem of any such conflict of priorities is that, being writers, we know the boss. We can talk him into anything! Not only will he let me off a few weeks for family care, he’ll even do it for my emergency fishing trips.

    Like you say, Jan, if you treat your writing as a job, your boss will grow a set of priorities that will balance caring and writing properly.

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    • says

      Ha, Dane! I love your humorous take on the situation. Explains why my boss always seems to know when I’ve been gossiping about her. ;)

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  10. says

    Another amazing post. One of those posts that “hits” me. You have the ability to touch your readers on a very deep level.

    I am fortunate wrt that Sandwich thing. I have a very capable sister (& her hubby) who look out for my dad. I am 2000 miles away.

    I’m glad you are coping well, Jan. You are obviously coping well. I’m glad you can put this into words. I never could.

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  11. Lisa Shambrook says

    You’ve hit home… Just four weeks ago, I began struggling with the sandwich position, to be honest, I still am. Just as your own children become adept at looking after themselves, the older family members slip…
    One parent just out of hospital and unable to do much or go anywhere, and the other infirm parent, who refuses to admit to being infirm and doesn’t want help. Those moments you have to leave everything and phone and drive round trying to locate the missing parent when the other phones to say she hasn’t come back from a half hour trip, three hours later… only to get a call from first parent saying she’s back home, but please don’t say anything about his worry to her in the future. Talk about a rock and a hard place!
    With more surgeries to come for him and her consistently decreasing memory, I’m in it for the long haul.
    Right now I feel angry and guilty for feeling that way, but you give me hope that it will pass. I need to embrace the time I spend with them and not allow it to turn into resentment…wish me luck and thank you for the post!

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    • says

      Oh, Lisa, you’ve definitely got your challenges. I don’t know your situation, but I’d recommend you pull in as much support as you can. Family, family physicians, social workers, and churches are great places to start. You’ll probably feel better when you have good information and resources.

      An online resource that looks honest and realistic is this one: http://www.sandwichgeneration.com/

      Good luck! Don’t beat yourself up for the struggle. Welcome to being human. ;)

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  12. says

    Jan, Thanks for a post that’s both heartfelt and heartwarming. I’m not in the sandwich generation–right now, I’m perilously close to becoming a top slice of bread, but so far my wife and I don’t require help from our kids. Nevertheless, I feel connected to the situation.
    As a retired physician, I can also identify with the added stresses of your profession (which, I assume, you’re still practicing as well as all the other things piled on you).
    Best wishes on your journey, and good luck moving out of the “unpublished” ranks. If your books are like your blog posts, it won’t be long. Thanks for sharing.

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    • says

      Oh, thank you, Richard. I don’t practice any more, but as you know, once a professional caregiver, always a personal one.

      This has been interesting, too, because I automatically reframe my actions within the context of what I’d want to ask of my own children. I find that helps a great deal.

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  13. says

    Thanks for this, Jan. I’m not a caregiver, yet, but I’m the sibling with the flexibility to travel my 2000 miles and stay with my mother periodically as she cared for my father at the end and now thru the early widowhood transition. I’m lucky in that while my youngest lives at home, he’s college age, so I missed the sandwich generation. But through these last few months, I can identify with a lot of the advice you give, and I wish I’d had it earlier. My guilty thoughts included “I can’t sign up for this writer’s conference because I don’t know how long Dad will last.” Followed by “How selfish can I be?”
    I’ll eventually be my mom’s caregiver, and we bought our house with that in mind, so I suppose I already “own” that. I’ve spent the last ten years convincing her, anyway! But when the time comes, I’ll need this advice again, so I’m saving it. Thanks.
    And thanks for a great Neil Gaimon quote!

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    • says

      Isn’t that a great quote? I’ve looked at it several times a day for months and it still makes me laugh.

      For the reason you expressed, and my own baggage, “selfish” is a word I dislike. Strongly. So many of us mix up self-care and self-respect with dishonoring others, and they needn’t overlap in the least. Would you agree?

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  14. says

    Welp, so much of this . . . applies.

    I could write more here, but then the floodgates may open and I already blasted someone with my putritude (hi Jan! *laugh*)

    well written. well thought out. well . . . all those good things.

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  15. says

    ps – how did I miss you broke your ribs? or did my blackhole brain slurp up that too and I’ve already sent well wishes. My brain is not always my friend.

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  16. says

    The gut reaction is always to protect the space we claim for ourselves, but your hit home with “embrace.” There are no stories, no inspiration in continuity– it is challenge that pulls out the best in us. God bless, Jan. You’ve found the hero in you, a very courageous undertaking.

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    • says

      Of late, I’ve seen “lean” replace “embrace,” as in “lean into the obstacle.” I like that metaphor. I imagine it to be like standing in gale-force winds and using them to help prop oneself up.

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  17. says

    Yes! You have summed up well the situation of being part of the sandwich generation.
    Continuing to write actually gives a balance that might otherwise be lacking. :)

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  18. Bernadette Phipps Lincke says

    “If you don’t put your writing on the table as a “must,” why should anyone else respect it? You’ll never get to be a pro if you act like your work is disposable or make your timetable as flexible as a politician’s ethics.”

    Amen.

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  19. says

    I don’t know why this struck such an emotional chord with me. I’m not even in this situation! Perhaps it’s remembering the loss of my father, still painful at unexpected times after 16 years. Or perhaps it’s the knowledge that my mother is so far away and I don’t know if I’ll be there when it happens, if it happens suddenly as it did with my father.

    It is moving, warm and immenselfy useful advice for caregivers and future caregivers, but I found it particularly helpful to me right now, to remind myself about my writing. If the current daily job and family demands make me feel I don’t have time to write, imagine if I had REAL and much more urgent time demands. My boys are teenagers who don’t “need” me much at all these days, and my job is a job, not my life. I have to keep reminding myself of this as I go through my day, and the next, and the next….

    Thank you.

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    • says

      Maybe it’s served as a reminder we don’t have forever, Deborah? (I find too much awareness of mortality leads to regret, to little to being a slacker.)

      Whatever the case, I’m glad it motivated you to write.

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  20. says

    This is my favorite quote ~ Neil Gaiman: “When writing a novel, that’s pretty much entirely what life turns into: House burned down. Cat exploded. Did 1500 easy words, so all in all it was a pretty good day.”

    Funny how, if the writing is going well, everything else is tolerable. :) My own experiences with elderly parents has been mainly in the chauffeur area. On the rare week, I have three or four days in a row when I’m not running someone around and I try to really enjoy that time.

    Now, I’m off to take my MIL to a funeral. :)

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    • says

      You need a uniform, Sheila!

      For me, exercise outdoors and writing are the keystone habits, which is why I find that quote so amusing and apt.

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  21. says

    Thanks for the wise, thoughtful advice. We weren’t “primary” when my mother-in-law died 2 months ago, but the experience did take its toll — and my mother’s recent hospitalization gives a hint of the future. Good to think about these things in advance, difficult as they are, to prepare emotionally and set up the practical support system.

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    • says

      Yes! I didn’t address this at all, but you’re right; practically speaking there are some things the ToolMaster and I will do differently from here on forward. When one can see HUGE time, effort, and money wasters, why not address them in advance?

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  22. says

    I’ll be brief, as I’m typing with one hand (nice change of pace, eh?). Wonderful post, sooo on the money. Cracked up on milking the llama drama, and also love the Gaiman quote. Great job and best wishes, Jan!

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    • says

      I started to crack a joke about you being a one-handed pecker, but realized that would be inappropriate on WU. Good thing I’m a model of restraint. ;)

      Thank you, Vaughn. Hope you feel better soon.

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  23. says

    Thanks, Jan. Hang in there…
    My husband and I have dealt with this situation before and, now, we’re dealing with it again. You got it all right, IMO, and made me smile more than once as I was reading this, too. ;)

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  24. says

    Hi Jan…even after a few years, the pain still cuts. I was in the first class lounge in Hong Kong Airport (long story) when my mother rang to confirm my father had been diagnosed with Alzheimers/Dementia. I sat in the marble tiled bathroom and sobbed my heart out in the knowledge that I was going to watch the father I adored slowly disappear before my eyes.
    My mother remained his full time carer but I was the eldest child and when it came to decision making, that seemed to rest on my shoulders. All this and a senior exec job and members of the younger generation still living at home.
    Writing went out of the window. I had no room in my life for creativity – everything revolved around work or Dad. Even after he was in nursing home, I hated visiting him. Conflicting emotions of anger, resentment, guilty, pity, remorse…every time I ran the gamut! And when I needed him the most he wasn’t there.
    While he was dying we kept vigil by his bedside and that was when I started writing again…a silly little time travel piece that I have just completed. I needed that escape from the reality of my situation.

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    • says

      Alison, I’m sure you know this by now, but for most people, grief isn’t a one-stop journey. It can feel like an endless loop, though eventually we find our way out or cycle through to peace a little faster. (Until something more urgent arises, anywa.)

      What makes it harder is that our culture tends to silence the discussion, so people end up feeling abnormal on top of besieged.
      This is where a good counselor or group can be of enormous help.

      I suspect that “silly” piece is anything but. Sounds like a hugely courageous step to me. May it be only the start for you. Rock on, Alison.

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    • Linda Belcher says

      Alison, your reply has hit hard with me. Alzheimer’s took my husband this past January and I went through all those emotions over the years. Creativity is a relentless creature and writing while waiting in hospitals and in the nursing home was one way for me to survive. Being his full time caregiver with friends helping when they could, the wonderful help from hospice and finally in the end a wonderful nursing home that was able to give him what I couldn’t at home. It is now the time for healing, scheduling time for me to release the stranglehold I have had on myself and begin finding my new normal. It is slow but good.

      your words – ‘I had no room in my life for creativity – everything revolved around work or Dad. Even after he was in nursing home, I hated visiting him. Conflicting emotions of anger, resentment, guilty, pity, remorse…every time I ran the gamut! And when I needed him the most he wasn’t there.’

      So now we pick up the pieces of our lives and move ever so slowly toward living once again.

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  25. says

    I’m writing to thank you for your writing. I just finished reading something that was so poorly written it gave me a headache. I almost went to bed in that condition. Praise the gods of serendipity, I was drawn by your title and read your article. It was like washing the taste of sour milk out of my mouth with licorice tea. My hope in the future of the written word is revived.

    Bless you,

    Your new follower

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  26. says

    Jan,
    I didn’t get a chance to weigh in on this piece yesterday, but I want to add my appreciation for sharing such a heartfelt and eloquent piece. We are dealing with this issue as our mom has Alzheimer’s and it’s been hard especially on my brother, who has shouldered much of the burden. People tend to forget writers have personal lives and face the same challenges as everyone else. Hang in there and thanks again.

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    • says

      CG, you’re probably already tapped into one, but these days most cities have an Alzheimer’s support group. They can help with the special challenges accompanying a loved-one’s dementia or mental illness.

      My best wishes to you and your family. I hope you’re able to protect the writing.

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    • says

      Jan is right, CG Blake, Alzheimer’s Association can be a big help. And there may come a time when you will need to contact a hospice group that can give you so much while your loved one is still in the home. My husband and I depended heavily on our hospice group. It is not just an end time organization they are there from the beginning.

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  27. says

    Thanks, Jan,

    When I looked ‘The Sandwich Generation’ in the personal eye, I did what most writers would.

    I wrote a novel about it.

    “‘Mater Biscuit” (Simon & Schuster/Touchstone April 2004) was born when I took my two toddlers over to Mama’s and she had my 90-something, nearly blind granny standing behind her.

    “Could you keep an eye on Iris and Gus for me? Just for a few hours?” I asked.

    Mama swiped her hand across her forehead, and said, “I reckon. Guess I’m just part of the Sandwich Generation.” And that was the first time I ever heard the term ‘Sandwich Generation.’

    It’s cathartic to write about such things.

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    • says

      “It’s cathartic to write about such things.”

      I couldn’t agree with you more. And its a bonus when one can turn a personally significant event into a commercially viable piece. Congrats.

      As a former doc, I’d known of the term “sandwich generation” for a while, but a new terms to me: double-decker sandwich. That’s a person who assumes care to parents, children, and grandchildren, and not in the least uncommon.

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  28. says

    My Dad died yesterday. What you say has as much validity for that kind of grief as for becoming a sandwich. Thank you, this post is well timed for me.

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  29. says

    I became a caregiver for my late husband at 30. It took a while into the process to realize I needed to take care of myself too. It’s that whole flight attendant speech about putting your oxygen mask on first. Some may think it’s selfish, but often very necessary to help the ones you love.

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    • says

      So true, Stacy, but it has even more validity from you. Thank you for that.

      And I’m sorry you went through that difficulty. Thirty is so darn young to be in that role.

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  30. says

    My experience is that so long as you’re in this position and the family work needs to be done, you don’t actually come out the other side. Once the initial crisis passes, you just get used to living in the heat until the next crisis comes. We’ve had parental health and aging problems for around 5 years now, and we expect it to go on for years to come. I try to accept the reality of the present, because if I fight it, I’m just expending time and energy that I could use for something else. I also am always aware that there are plenty of people who are dealing with worse situations, as reading the comments above illustrates.

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    • says

      “I try to accept the reality of the present, because if I fight it, I’m just expending time and energy that I could use for something else.”

      That sounds wise, Gail, and I believe you about the long-term nature of the care-giving position. Better not to count on life returning to its former shape but learn how to do well with reality.

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