“Hill? Would you mind stopping by and folding my king-size fitted sheet?” asks my 83-year-old mom over the phone, frustration clear in her voice. “It’s just too difficult for me.” Saying yes to the request is easy, because I live nearby; I even find myself glowing when she raves about how efficient I am, having tamed the sheet into an (imperfect) rectangle in seconds.
What I don’t focus on, initially, is my concern that she finds the task difficult in the first place. That comes later, sneaking up on me like a whisper in my ear, as other “difficulties” start coming at me: managing Amazon returns, scheduling doctor appointments, syncing her iPhone. Although my vibrant, Ph.D. mom lives a richly independent life – albeit alone, since my father died seven years ago – I’ve been her emotional support for some time. But caretaking? That’s not something I thought would start so soon. Especially when, right now, I’m 57 and newly divorced, and am putting my own life back together.
It’s hard to pinpoint the average age this kind of “early caretaking” begins (according to the National Institutes of Health, it ranges from age 50 to 70), but Gen X is uniquely positioned to be slammed and caught by surprise. First of all, we are a bust generation, tucked between two large generations, meaning there are less of us to take care of more of them. And our generation rewrote the classic “timelines” of grown-up life: we pursued higher education, ascended up the corporate ladder, more women chose to pursue careers, and we pushed off marriage and kids. So a full 25 percent of us actually still have young kids at home as our parents begin to age, creating the classic caretaking sandwich — which Gen X author Ada Calhoun, who wrote a book detailing the unique caretaking pressures on Gen X women, says is more like “panini grills pressing us flat.”
Add to this the fact that our Boomer parents have divorced at skyrocketing rates as they age – divorce rates have tripled with their generation – and many of us are keeping our eye on parents in two different households, doubling the work and the stress.
Scott Sjodin, of Edmonds, WA, has parents who are still married, but he was just 27 when he first noticed a decline in his parents, some seven years ago. “In the beginning, it was little things – I’d come by to help with tasks around the house, or technology issues on their computers. It made me feel needed at first, in a good way,” he recalls. But his parents, who have always struggled with poor health began to deteriorate: dad forgetting things, mom becoming clinically obese. Scott’s brother, who flamed out in frustration in helping with the care, left the picture, and responsibility fell squarely on Scott’s young shoulders. “I was overwhelmed, with a spike of anxiety and fear. Not only did I have no idea how to do any of this, but I never expected having to deal with a problem of this magnitude this early on.” Denial followed for quite some time; but eventually, Scott took full ownership of the caretaking, which he says he was able to accomplish with “amazing support” from both his wife and members of his parents’ church.
But Gen X-ers are used to the tough stuff, right? After all, we’re the generation that decided “reality bites”: we grew up in the AIDS epidemic, entered the job market after a major recession, and are the first generation to be saddled with record levels of debt. We’re tough and flexible and roll with the punches. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t real loss involved when caretaking duties land early.
Kristin Luna, of Tullahoma, TN, was only 34 when her 64-year-old father had a stroke, throwing the family into a tailspin. Even though her mother is healthy and at home full time, and her sister and brother-in-law also jumped in to help, Kristin’s life changed on a dime. She and her husband moved across the country to support her mother with her dad’s care, and today – five years later – she still finds the new normal to be a daily challenge. “Every weekend is a game of chess,” she explains. “We have to provide my 71-year-old mother relief from her full-time caretaking duties, and that means checking on dad a few times a day, making sure he eats meals, and that he hasn’t let the dogs roam the neighborhood.” And Kristen pointedly feels the loss of the memories she thought she still had so much time to make, family vacations they won’t take, holiday traditions forever changed.
Claire Pepper, 39, of Jacksonville, FL, had to sideline her own expectations as well. “I’m approaching my 40s, and everyone talks about how great those years are,” she says. But that changed when her 67-year-old mother was involved in a serious car accident last year. Her mother’s injuries have mostly healed, but Claire believes the experience fast-tracked her mom’s aging process. “More and more often, we have conversations in which my mother seems to repeat herself; and I find myself wondering if it’s an early sign of dementia.” That consciousness is daunting for Claire and her husband as they discuss their own future. “I realize now that this decade in my life will be filled with meeting the needs of my aging parents, and the selfish side of me is already feeling sad anticipating the sacrifices.”
No matter what unique challenges Gen X faces, the simple advice for getting through these early years of supporting your parents is the same for all caregivers: Seek support from others. Take care of yourself first so you can take care of those who need you (you know, like the oxygen mask on the airplane, right?). And take the early onset of caregiving as a pointed nudge to make as many joyful memories with your still-healthy parents as you can.
I kept that in mind recently, when my mom taught my 22-year-old daughter and me a revered family cookie recipe during the holiday season. Despite working around COVID parameters, masked up and socially distant in the kitchen, it was unexpectedly celebratory for all three of us – and in the moment, it seemed like a fair trade for taking care of her post-holiday Amazon returns.
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