My third baby was born on a sunny September Tuesday in 2010 and, as I cradled her in my arms, my mother at my side, I wondered how I was going to cope with three children under the age of five. Little did I know that just days later, I would also have to care for my mum.
I had never heard of the term “sandwich generation” until I became part of it, but the phrase was coined a few decades ago to describe the pressure some people find themselves under caring for both children and parents. With the trend for women to give birth later and people living longer, a study by Trinity College Dublin recently found that a third of all women in Ireland are considered to belong to the Sandwich Generation. A large number of men are also affected.
There is probably never a good time to take on the additional responsibility of care for a loved one, especially when you are already juggling at full capacity with family, kids and work. Four days after the birth of my third baby was definitely the worst. My mum and I were very close and although she lived in Belfast and I in Dublin, we barely went two weeks without seeing each other, and spoke every day on the phone. Mum was with me at the birth of my youngest daughter on that Tuesday, cradling her little body with love. Four days later she rang me just before she put my other two daughters to bed. I was bringing the baby home the next morning and she couldn’t wait. She told me she loved me, as she had done most days of my life. It would be the last time.
After reading my girls a story and kissing them goodnight, she settled on the sofa and within minutes the life she had known bled away in a catastrophic brain haemorrhage. By the time my dad and husband got her to hospital she was rendered permanently paralysed and brain damaged. She lost all ability to function, and although she could speak, her memory and cognitive function were gone. I spent the first year spoon-feeding her and my baby, changing their nappies and trying to gauge how they felt through their eyes. Five years later my baby started school, but my mum remained, locked in a redundant body, unable to participate in the family life she had always been the centre of.
My mum, Pat, was a young 75. She did water aerobics twice a week and had a more active social life than me. I fully expected her to continue mothering me while I learned to mother my young girls. It never occurred to me that I would spend those years instead caring for her. While most of us expect to parent, we rarely think about the care we might have to give to our own parents, yet it is increasingly a reality for many.
Projections by the Central Statistics Office show that one in every five people living in Ireland in 20 years will be over the age of 65. As we are seeing increasingly on TV and media, the issues around caring for an ageing population are already causing problems. But while decisions around options of care are hitting the headlines, it is the everyday care provided by adult children and partners that goes unnoticed. I had no idea when I began my sandwich years what a toll it would take on me and my family.
Thankfully the health system in Belfast meant that once my mum was transferred back there from Dublin, she could be cared for at home by my dad. He was an active man with many interests including mountain walking and photography, but my mum was now-bed-bound which meant he became house-bound. Without that community support, my mum would have had to go into a home. But it still meant an enormous challenge to him, me and my brother who lived in Edinburgh. I travelled up the M1 every other weekend to give care for mum and give my dad a break, and my brother travelled as often as he could. We both had careers and young families at home, and juggling the needs of them all was extremely stressful.
From our mum, we had both learned how to parent our children, but neither of us imagined the intimacy of care we would have to provide for her. From spoon feeding and cleaning her teeth, to clearing up diarrhoea to cutting her toenails. We were able to have her hoisted into a wheelchair for a couple of hours a day, and after a couple of years we invested in a specially adapted van. We called it the Pat-mobile and it meant we could take her out for fresh air and to see friends. She couldn’t follow or contribute to a conversation, but we still included her in as much as we could.
One day my brother rang me, concerned. He was taking mum round to a friend’s house, and I had asked him to make sure she looked ok. “Ok, I think I’ve got her in matching clothes, but what do I do with her face?” My mum had always looked her best and I tried as much as possible to keep that up, encouraging my dad and brother to face their fear of fashion and do the same. She would have hated to be seen looking so old and haggard. So now her 50-year-old son was staring into the abyss of his mother’s make-up bag and needed direction. I talked him through the process of foundation, blusher and mascara and grimaced when he said, “is she meant to have a brown circle round her face?”. I don’t know what she ended up looking like, and her friends wouldn’t have cared, but my brother did his best, like we all did, to care for the person who had cared for us the most.
The sandwich years are affecting more and more people, caught between the stressful and demanding responsibility of care for children and parents. I ended up being diagnosed with depression, and it took time for me to come to terms with the juggling act of so many needs. I learned a lot about myself, and about care. Seeking support, asking for help, finding the good in a sometimes harrowing situation, and learning that sometimes your best is all you can do. It is never an easy situation, and guilt will always be your bedfellow. What I learned above all, was that amid parent-care and child-care, you have to remember self-care.
Alana Kirk is author of The Sandwich Years, published by Hachette Ireland €8.99