Dr. Margaret Thorne

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The Sandwich Generation

A juggling act

Until a couple of years ago, when my elderly parents were still alive, I was part of the ‘sandwich generation’ for several years. This name relates to a generation of adults who have the responsibility of caring for their ageing parents. At the same time, these adults are caring for their children or grandchildren and often working outside the home.

Caring for parents

I would like to share a short story about my mother and father who both lived in a residential aged care facility for six years until their mid-nineties. My mother was cognitively aware until the end of her life but my father suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease.

Prior to my parents moving, and during the time that they lived in residential aged care, my siblings and I assumed various responsibilities as we catered for their emotional, physical, financial, and advocacy needs to the best of our abilities.

I know that my story is not unlike the stories of many other adults with elderly parents who are juggling family commitments and working at the same time.

Relocation to residential aged care

My mother and father both moved into a residential aged care facility in their late eighties. At this time, they had been married for over sixty years. The decision to move was made by my mother as her vision was limited due to macular degeneration and she had arthritic knees and a heart condition. My father’s memory was also deteriorating. It was not an easy decision for my mother, as she would have preferred to remain at home with my father for the rest of their lives. However, it was taking her all her time to look after herself, let alone cope with my father’s deteriorating mental condition.

Parenting the parents

The losses that both of my parents experienced were very real and it was extremely difficult at times observing their vulnerability. Whereas I was still the daughter of my mother and father, there were many times when I took on the role of their parent as I assumed more responsibility for their welfare. Having a working background in residential aged care certainly helped me during this time to reassure them and advocate for their specific needs when necessary. 

Loss and grief

My mother adjusted to changes in her new living environment quite well considering that she had lost a lot of independence and so much of her relationship with my father as his Alzheimer’s Disease continued to progress. During this time my mother tried to remain as positive as possible and often reminded herself of the good sixty years that she had spent with my father.

As a result of my father’s memory loss, he did not adjust to the move and found it difficult to understand why he required care and could not live in his own home. As my father had been so independent, happy, and positive during his lifetime, it took a long time before my mother finally came to terms with his memory loss and the fact that he was no longer the same man she had married. Over a period of seven years, it was very sad witnessing my father eventually losing both his short-term and long-term memory and not recognising his immediate family most of the time.

Old age creeps up on us

As in the case of my parents, many elderly people have led long and independent lives before they relocate to residential aged care facilities because they have reached the stage where living in their own home is no longer sustainable or safe.

For residents, negotiating some consensus in their own space at a vulnerable time in their lives while living in a communal environment is not without its difficulties as they are all individuals with diverse cultural needs.

Living in these facilities may provide elderly people with some security but there are many difficult and conflicting emotions that they may experience after moving into a new home in the final years of their lives. Despite many residents in residential aged care facilities having attentive family members and friends, and good relationships with some of the staff, they can still experience some sad and lonely times.

Emotional assistance from family and staff is certainly beneficial. However, from my personal and professional experience, I have found that it not possible to remove all of the pain associated with the many losses that are part of the difficult and ongoing transition process into residential aged care.

Caring for the emotional and physical needs of elderly people is challenging and demanding work but also rewarding. Elderly people have a wealth of knowledge and love sharing their stories with others.

In summary, being involved with elderly people for so many years has completely opened my eyes to the loneliness and various losses that they experience. As a result of my professional and personal experiences, I have always considered it a privilege to be able to support these people in the final stages of their lives.

 

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