Stuck in the middle with you

Local parents who've joined the "sandwich generation."

Sandwich Generation, Parenting, Caregiver

"There's something nice about having everyone you love under the same roof," said Irene Minerley, shown here with (from L to R,) Bette Bassik, Irene, Stephanie Minerley, and her grandson Damian.

What image pops into your mind when you hear the word “family?” For most modern-day Americans, than image probably looks like two parents, some kids, and maybe a dog. But for four families in the Hudson Valley, that image is changing. Like millions of other Americans, they're joining what’s known as “the sandwich generation.”

The sandwich generation, or the group of Americans who are caring for both their children and their parents, is growing. According to the Pew Research Center in 2012, 15 percent of adults aged 40-60 in this country fit into this category.

With the number of Americans over 65 expected to double by the year 2030, the sandwich generation is expected to expand. And with it,  our notions of what and whom a “typical” family includes will be expanding as well.

The many faces of the sandwich generation

Irene Minerley of Red Hook lives in a home that spans four generations. She lives with her 87-year-old mother, her husband, her 28-year-old daughter, her 26-year-old daughter, and her 2-year-old grandson.

She invited her mother to live with her in 2010, after realizing her mother was struggling to take care of a home that was too big for her. Minerley says it took some convincing, and that her mother referred to it as “only temporary” for a long time before deciding to finally sell her home and accept her new living situation. When she finally did, Minerley found that it was a relief to no longer have to worry about what might happen to her mother if she was on her own.

Don't let grandma undercut your authority

When her pregnant daughter needed a place to stay the following year, Minerley said “I couldn’t say no.” She has even told her son that if he has trouble finding a job after college, he is welcome, too. “There’s something nice about having everyone you love under the same roof,” she said.

But as Sam Vicinanza of Hopewell Junction found out, sometimes being part of the sandwich generation doesn't mean that everyone that you're taking care of is under that same roof.

One day in 2013, her father-in-law began having hallucinations and difficulty with simple tasks. Eventually he was diagnosed with a form of dementia, which she describes as part Alzheimer’s and part Parkinson's disease.

Because of the nature of his diagnosis and his forethought to purchase long term care insurance, the family was able to place him in a care facility in Greenwich, Connecticut. Her husband is an only child and often drives to Greenwich after work. “He doesn't come home until our son is asleep. It's difficult to balance,” said Vicinanza.

Isabel Dichiara of Poughkeepsie agrees that it is difficult to balance everyone’s needs in a multi-generational home. She lives with her three young children, her husband and his mother. Although her mother-in-law is relatively independent, she says the dynamic in the home is complicated.

“It’s a balance between doing what’s best for your child and doing what’s best for everyone in the household,” she says. “Those two concepts do not always match.”

This is not the first time Dichiara has been involved in caring for an older relative. She helped her own mother care for her grandmother until she passed away in 2001. “It was exceedingly stressful on both of us, and I wasn’t even the primary caregiver,” she recalled.

Family struggles

Having to take care of both your children and your parents or in-laws brings its own set of struggles. Minerley said living in such close proximity with her daughters makes it sometimes difficult to avoid arguments.

Vicinanza said being a caregiver to an elderly relative has taken a toll on her husband, because the dementia has changed her father-in law's personality so drastically. “My husband has taken this so hard,” she said. “He misses his father dearly.”

Jennifer Chung, parenting expert, CEO, and cofounder of Kinsights, said one of the most common problems that the sandwich generation faces is the struggle with consistency that comes when extended family members live together.

Evoultion of parenting

“One grandparent might be lenient about table manners when this is something that really matters to you,” she said. “And maybe an aunt or uncle doesn’t think your kids should watch any TV, when you’ve already decided that 30 minutes a day is fine.” Chung suggested that everyone involved communicate their wishes clearly to avoid any such conflicts.

Lessons learned

Minerley said she’s learned that it’s important to be patient with yourself. Juggling caring for so many people is hard work, and it’s important to give yourself some space as well. She tries to make Saturday the day she spends alone with her husband to recharge.

Meanwhile Minerley’s mother says that watching after her grandson during the day while her daughter is at work is its own reward:“He makes me feel like I’m 30 again.”

This benefit is one of the most positive aspects about the sandwich generation, according to Chung. She said that children who grow up with a close relationship with their grandparents get a sense of personal history and context from hearing family stories told firsthand.

“It’s great for children to have other trusted adults to serve as a sounding board,” she said. “You may find that your children share things with others — challenges with friendships, school, or siblings — that they just wouldn’t share with you.”

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Seeking help

Even with these benefits, it is important to know when to reach out or to say enough is enough.  “You have to be willing to accept when it’s time to move on to a higher level of care than you may be able to offer at home,” said Dichiara.

Vicinanza echoes this sentiment, and points out that there are resources that can help.

“Make sure you check your local resources (like the local Alzheimer’s association),” she said. “They can help with visiting nurse services and put you in touch with local support groups.” Vicinanza also says one of the biggest lessons she’s taken away from this experience is to prepare for your future.

“My father-in-law had an up to date will, appointed my husband power of attorney and medical proxy long before he was sick,” she said. “He also paid into long term care insurance, which has been a godsend.”

Dawn Green is a freelance writer who lives with her family in Saugerties.