Being one of the sandwich generation has long been recognised as difficult, but if we – that swathe of people broadly defined as those between the ages of 35-54 who care for ageing parents as well as bringing up children – thought we had it tough before, well, there’s nothing quite like a pandemic to alter perspective. Those two slices of bread just got a whole lot thicker – and not in a satisfying, toothsome way.
“I used to fret about getting my children off to school with everything they needed for the day and then dropping in on my mum before heading to my fitness class,” Jo, a 49-year-old mother of two, says ruefully. “Now, I’ve had my children at home for a good chunk of the year, my concerns for my mum are so much greater than the previous ‘does she need company? Does she need milk?’ and my fitness classes are a luxury I can barely afford any more, because of both time and furlough.”
Being one of those ingrates who went travelling and never returned home, I can’t by any means claim to have dealt with care and concern at such close range as Jo.
Yet living far away, now with a young family of my own in the UK, comes with its own set of issues, not least of which is a feeling of terrifying impotence.
Several years ago, my friend’s mother passed away unexpectedly and she, shell-shocked though she was by that early-hours call, was able to drive the 70 miles down deserted freeways and see her mother too late to say goodbye, but before too much time had passed.
With my parents both in Sydney, the idea of a similar scenario haunted me. If I were to receive such a call, what would I do? How soon could I be there? Jumping in a car and fanging it down empty night-time roads is a bleak enough thought – what would my arrangements, with childcare, ticketing, flight times, and even budget, involve?
The arrival of the pandemic has, of course, highlighted these issues all the more sharply – not only because it feels that our ageing parents are more vulnerable than ever, but also because we often can’t readily spend time with them. One friend of mine, who lives in America, flew home to Sydney to be with her father, who’d received a terminal (non Covid related) diagnosis.
As per the Australian rules, she hotel quarantined at her own expense, and was allowed, on compassionate grounds and under escort, to visit her father once each day. After her fortnight of quarantine was over, she was able to be with him more freely. Soon, her other life required her to go back; her father died soon after she landed back in the States.
My own experience has been nowhere near as tragic, yet there’s a prosaic reality to my circumstances that I sometimes find almost paralysing. ‘Caring’ for my divorced parents – both of whom are, fortunately, well, but live alone – involves frequent check-ins, on which we, at a distance of nearly 17,000 kilometres, are tech-reliant.
When the tech fails, or when they can’t quite grasp how something works, I find myself penning lengthy emails, or providing detailed instructions in a call, with all of the frustration that this creates: my parents don’t want to feel incapable; I don’t want them to feel patronised, yet we’re all tacitly aware that it’s taking hours to nitty-gritty our way through a task that I’d have done in minutes.
When my mother purchased her first smartphone, she was armed with a list of questions and requirements I’d prepped her with (helping her to set it up was a whole other story – but, oh, so worth it for the joy of our first FaceTime!)
There are the everyday frustrations, too. When I say that I’ll be in touch on Tuesday, and the hours slide into Wednesday without my noticing, I must swiftly respond to their anxious messages and allay their fears. I must guiltily remind myself that, when your life is no longer full of noise and children, Tuesday means Tuesday, and 11am means 11am.
When a service or delivery falls short, I can’t readily sort it out for them. Nor can I do their shopping for them, so I worry about them going out in public and exposing themselves to risk (even though the situation is much better in Australia than here).
My father, inherently suspicious of entering payment details online, refuses to switch to e-commerce for his necessities, so I’ve set up an account from here to handle it – which he’s also anxious about.
With so many social interactions curtailed by the virus, I fear that they are lonely. I worry about whether they are being active enough. I fret about how worried they might be feeling, and whether I’m doing enough to reassure them.
I’m aware that this all sounds terribly trivial, compared to the experiences of people who must actively care for their elderly relatives. Yet in a way, it’s where the mundanity of their needs and the awareness of my powerlessness collide – that’s where my sense of overwhelm is greatest.
What hope have I of caring for my parents if they were to fall ill, when I can’t even make them a cup of tea when they’re well?