Back in 2006, the term “Sandwich Generation” was officially added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. It’s used to describe those people who are “sandwiched” between caring for their children and for their aging parents. As life expectancies rise, more and more of us find ourselves in that situation. The term actually started floating around as early as 1981.
For reasons both intentional and unintentional, I have managed to keep myself sandwich-less. I chose not to have children, and unfortunately my mother died when she was 64, and I was 26. I never met my father. As much as I might grouse about the stress in my life, I really did get off easy.
I loved my mother, but she’d have turned 91 today, and it’s almost a guarantee that she’d be in very poor health had she lived. She was already showing signs of severe osteoporosis at the time of her death. She was also a lifelong smoker, and continued that habit even after being diagnosed with emphysema. Her hearing was already terrible. Does dementia run in our family? Who knows. None of us lives long enough to get to that point, it seems.
She would have also outlived her oldest daughter, with whom she had been living. I can’t imagine that she would have handled that well. (I once gave her a bit of bad news while she had a head cold, and it sent her to the hospital for three days.)
Who knows where she would have lived after my sister’s death. With my other sister? With me? In a nursing home? Impossible to say. None of those scenarios would have been ideal for her.
Every year when my mother’s birthday rolls around, I speculate about how different my life would be if she were still in it. I miss her. But the woman I miss and the 91 year old who would be here now are two very different people, no doubt.
Recently, I crossed the line to a place where I’ve lived more time without her than I did with her. That was a strange feeling. (If you still have your mom, stop what you’re doing, right now, and give her a hug. I mean it. Do it right now.)
If I had had children, they’d probably be in their late teens or twenties by now. I can’t imagine dealing with the typical rebelliousness, and anxiety over college costs, on top of worrying about a very elderly, and most likely very unhappy, mother. The mind boggles.
For those of you who are the meat in the sandwich generation, my hat is off to you.
All my life, I’ve been told that old people are set in their ways. They’re rigid. Conservative. They don’t want to try new things. It made me dread growing old.
Now that I’m getting older, though, I’m beginning to have a different perspective on this subject. First of all, I know a lot of older people who are still willing to push the outer envelope. My friend Carole even jumped out of a perfectly good airplane on her 73rd birthday. That gives me hope. I think that as the baby-boomers age, they are less willing to quietly settle into that old folks stereotype. That makes me really happy.
On the other hand, as I start to develop more and more “ways” of my own, I totally understand the desire to be set in them. One should never overlook the wealth of experience that older people possess. We say that people become “wizened”, which means shriveled or wrinkled, but I like to imagine that it also means more wise. Most of us learn as we age. There’s a reason most of your teachers are not your contemporaries. Older people developed their ways through trial and error. They’ve survived. They’ve figured out what works for them. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, as the saying goes. I no longer see anything wrong with that.
As I settle into a routine that brings me joy, I’m less and less willing to change those habits. It’s only natural that I become less flexible as I become less flexible. I like the peace and quiet of not having a television. I like my Epsom salt baths by the light of my lavender candle. Cuddling with my dog makes me happy and reduces my heating bills. I doubt I’ll ever embrace Twitter. And I may say “hashtag” out loud, but I’ll always be thinking “pound sign”.
So yeah, this happened: I got dressed in grubby clothes, complete with an extra t-shirt to cover my hair, and a face mask and safety glasses and gloves, and I dragged my fat self under my house. Mission: installing insulation on the sub-floor.
I think it’s important to know one’s house from top to bottom, but I’ve never known a crawl space that wasn’t unspeakably gross, and this one is no exception. Despite the extra t-shirt, I was picking spider eggs out of my hair in the shower later that day. Fortunately, the rat poop was at a minimum, but it was still there. And I was blowing fiberglass and dust out of my nose for hours afterward. I knew I would feel it in the morning, and I wasn’t wrong.
Why do I put myself through this? For starters, I’m cheap, and can’t justify paying someone else to do something that I can do myself. But mostly it’s simply because I can, and I’m proud of this. When I was a teenager, I had a summer job with the Youth Conservation Corps and it taught me that I’m capable of a heck of a lot.
My whole life, I’ve been told I couldn’t do things. Because I’m a girl. Because I’m too young or too old or too weak or, well, because it’s just not done. So I used to change the oil in my car myself. I took vacations alone in the woods. I traveled overseas by myself. And I’ve done more than one home improvement project in my day. It does wonders for my self-esteem.
Sooner or later I’ll reach an age where crawling under my house will be foolhardy at best. I can see that time off on the horizon, but it gets a little closer every day. I wonder if I’ll be sad or relieved when that day finally comes?
My advice would be to ignore the naysayers. If you have the brains to learn how to do something (God bless Youtube), and the physical ability to pull it off, then do it yourself as often as you can. You’ll value the results more, and you’ll gain the confidence you need to climb over the next hurdle that crosses your path.
When I was young and I’d hear an older person say they were getting old and forgetful, I used to smile and say I couldn’t wait to have that excuse for my absentmindedness. I’ve always been easily distracted. Flaky, even.
But now I’m starting to get it. As I age, it’s getting much, much worse. And that’s terrifying. It is no fun, no fun at all, to know you can no longer rely on your own brain. Especially when you live alone.
Today I accidentally left my to-do list at home, and I’m a bit freaked out. I’m fairly certain that I’m forgetting to do something that’s time-sensitive and important, but for the life of me, I can’t recall what it is. That’s a helpless feeling. I don’t like it. That’s why I created the to-do list in the first place.
And I’m starting to forget words. I know what I want to say conceptually. It’s on the tip of my tongue. I just can’t always verbalize it. “Please pass me the… the… you know. That thing.”
Do you have any idea how scary it is for a writer not to be able to come up with a word? And since I’m not currently in a nice comfortable relationship where the other person can finish my sentences for me, odds are that the person I’m talking to doesn’t know what thing I’m referring to.
The older I get, the more I feel like I’m traveling in a land where I don’t speak the language and I don’t have a map or an itinerary. And while I do love to travel, I love to be able to communicate even more. This is a confusing place. I’d like to go home now.
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Yep. I’m getting old. I have slight arthritis in my hips, and some mornings it feels as though they’re not going to support my weight for a few seconds there. Rather than a morning smoker’s hack (the sound of my mother’s made me a nonsmoker for life), I have a morning hobble and groan.
I’ve also been feeling a twinge in my knee of late. As with small sounds in my car, I keep ignoring it, hoping it will go away. Fingers crossed…
And bell peppers don’t agree with me anymore. That’s a shame, because I like them. But if I eat them, I know I’ll soon regret it.
And the more grey my hair becomes, the more kinky and unmanageable it gets. It seems I did not inherit my mother’s silky, lustrous silver tresses. I’ll probably be one of those unruly, witchy women, in appearance as well as in word and deed.
But even though I miss my 19 year old body, I don’t miss the 19 year old me. If all these aches and pains are the price I have to pay for a life well lived, full of lessons and experiences, then I’ll take it. I’ll take it and come back for seconds.
As a child, one of the hardest things for me was the experience of outgrowing things that I loved. Favorite sweaters. Child-sized furniture. Extremely sugary foods. Certain rides at the state fair. The kid’s menu at Howard Johnson’s.
No one likes change. And if I loved something, I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t love it forever. It fit me before. Why doesn’t it fit me now?
I actually still have one sweatshirt from elementary school. It’s hard for me to believe I was ever that small. I kept it sort of as a frame of reference. But if I had kept all my clothing and toys from childhood, my life would be full of wasted space. That would be tragic indeed.
Time marches on. And it seems that outgrowing things doesn’t stop even when you are fully grown. It’s just that the things you outgrow become more complex. Friendships. Philosophies. Political systems. Jobs. Vices. Groups.
There’s a certain rise and decay that formulates the circle of life. Just ask the Greeks and the Romans. Things and people and beliefs are solid for a time, but eventually they crumble to dust and are replaced by something else.
Recently I was kicked out of a group and for a hot second, there, it felt like the end of the world to me. A friend of mine suggested I keep attending anyway. They meet in a public place, after all. But I don’t want to do that. There are still many people I love there, and I don’t want to create tension and awkwardness for them. The wonderful feeling I got from being a part of that group is gone. There’s no resuscitating that. There’s a cancer at the core of the experience for which there is no cure.
And lo and behold, I am already discovering that the absence of that group is providing me with other intriguing opportunities. I’m already filling that time with other experiences, and meeting other people. Decay makes way for growth. The shit of life fertilizes the fruit.
I feel as though the country as a whole is experiencing this. Our government and our attitudes toward it are in a state of flux. It’s rather unsettling, trying to maintain one’s balance on these shifting sands. We resist the change and we mourn, but we will also be motivated to work toward bigger and better change, and from that, new and exciting things will surely flow.
The next time you sense that you are outgrowing something, remind yourself that you are just a tiny part of a much larger plane of existence. As Max Ehrmann once said, “No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”
Ever since I entered my 50’s I’ve had many people say to me, “Don’t worry, fifty is the new thirty.” As if I needed comforting or something. As if it is preferable to live in a state of denial.
Here’s the thing (yes, yes, there’s always a thing): I don’t want to be thirty. I like myself a lot more now than I did then. As a matter of fact, if I were to meet the me of 20 years ago, I’d probably give her a stern lecture about some of the bonehead decisions she is about to make.
I also genuinely believe that my generation is probably going to be the last to squeak through life while the environment on this planet is relatively habitable. That makes me sad for future generations, because it’s not their fault that we have done so much to destroy their world, and so little to fix our mistakes.
I’m glad I won’t be around for the riots over water, and won’t have to watch the ever-increasing population fight over the ever-shrinking coastlines. I’d really rather not experience the mega-storms. I’d prefer to skip the time when most bugs are resistant to antibiotics.
I also don’t feel that 50 is so freakin’ bad. My body might be a little slower getting started in the morning, but it still functions. I’m still perfectly capable of having new experiences and seeing new sights. I know that there is still much for me to create and write about and do. My future is still unpredictable enough to be exciting.
My advice to you is to own your age. Embrace it. Don’t look at aging as a source of shame, but rather as an accumulation of knowledge and life experience. That’s something to be proud of.
The fact is, we all have an expiration date. When I was 30, that thought scared me. Now, it’s kind of comforting, and I’m okay with it. I don’t mind playing my part in a much bigger picture. In fact, that’s exactly what I want to do.