The world has changed in myriad ways since I was born in the middle of the last century. Divorce was virtually unheard of. Birth control, abortion, and homosexuality were all prohibited under the Criminal Code.
In the popular imagination, if not entirely in the real world, men were the breadwinners, heading out to the work place each day, while women stayed at home, producing and caring for the large families now known as the Baby Boom, and doing all the housework, shopping, and family work.
While life expectancy was rising as a result of a higher standard of living, and the discovery of antibiotics, vaccines, and other life-saving technologies, people could expect to live only a decade or less past the mandatory retirement of age of 65.
A baby born today can expect to live to be 81 years of age. Each year, the number of Canadians over a hundred years of age grows, with people living into their 11th decade becoming almost commonplace.
While the rate of divorce hovers below that of the United States (currently 50%), still more than a third of marriages end of divorce, with most people looking to remarry and begin a new blended family. Women are choosing to bear children into their forties, with the result that many women are juggling the responsibilities of rearing young children and teens with working in the paid labour force well into their fifties.
Nonetheless the rate of single people and people living alone rises dramatically, with condo towers filled with single inhabitants towering over our cities.
While life changed throughout our parents’ lives of course, stability was the hallmark. Today, instability, change, multiple jobs, changes in relationship status and sexual orientation, all reflect the dramatic personal and social changes of our people.
What do all these demographic changes mean for people in their 50s and 60s and beyond?
The term sandwich generation was coined to describe people (women in particular) caught between the demands of childrearing, paid work, and the increasing needs of their elderly parents.
For myself, at 55, caring for two teenagers at home while commuting to care for my 92 year old father, I claimed the status of an “old sandwich,” as I raced between my responsibilities as a university professor and department chair, single mother, and daughter.
We hear a great deal these days about parenting our parents. And there is some truth in that phrase. As they age, our parents do need our help in ways we might never have imagined. Whether it’s help with the chores around the house or with personal care or major decisions, our parents head, often unwillingly, into an age of increasing dependence.
There are some important differences, however, between parenting our children and being with our parents in the final journey of their lives.
Our children will, we hope, grow up to be independent, thriving adults. While dealing with the temper tantrums of a two-year old or the hormone warzone of teenagers is no picnic, we can remind ourselves that “this too shall pass.” With our parents, however, the end that’s in sight is their deaths, and our lives without them.
While our teenagers can imagine themselves driving the car, staying out all night, surviving without us, and living on their own, our parents have already done these things and much more, all their lives. Recognizing, admitting that they can no longer function independently is without a doubt among the hardest challenges they will face.
Didn’t we used to admire their fierce independence? Now that independence has become the bane of our existence.
I still vividly recall the day I had to “threaten” my father. I had just spent three days setting up a daily schedule of caregivers to help him with his shower and meds in the morning, his lunch, and taking him down to the dining room for supper.
I was settling down at my hotel room across town with a well earned drink, when the phone rang.
It was the woman who owned the care service.
“Your father locked the door on the caregiver and refuses to let her in.”
Fuming, I drove back across town and stormed into his apartment.
“Dad,” I said, as I began the difficult conversation. “I understand you’ve locked the door and won’t let the ladies in to help you.”
“That’s true,” he readily acknowledged. “I don’t need their help and I don’t want them in here.”
I sighed deeply. “Dad, you need their help. You’re not steady on your feet and sometimes you forget to take your meds and you need someone to push you down in the wheelchair for dinner.”
He looked at me as if I were talking about a complete stranger.
“Dad,” I continued, “if you don’t let them in, you’ll have to move to assisted living. And that’s all there is to it. You need help, as we can’t be here all the time to provide it.”
He shook his head, sadly.
“My daughters have apparently taken over my life.”
I tried to tell him that that wasn’t true, that I had more than enough on my plate and that taking over his life was the last thing I wanted to do. But I knew there was no point. For my father, a powerful important man in control of his life down to the smallest detail, he had lost control of his life. It was humiliating and demeaning and there was nothing I could do about it, save allow him to express how it felt.