UNPOPULAR OPINION: We Shouldn't Have To Rearrange Our Lives To Provide At-Home Elder Care For Our Aging Parents

As someone in the so-called “Sandwich Generation,” I refuse to be the filling.
Publish date:
March 13, 2015
unpopular opinion, family drama, aging, elder care

I remember, as a brand new bride, my new mother in law grasping my arm before I even left the sanctuary. Smiling at me, she burbled, “I'm so glad he married you! Now I won't ever have to be in a nursing home!”

If I'd been able to muster the power of speech, I would've croaked out one word. To this day, I'm not sure if that would have been, “No,” or “Annulment.” Thankfully, I was completely speechless, and am still happily married to my husband, almost a dozen years, and another four children later.

My mother once informed me that, as the only daughter, I would be expected to move back across country when she was elderly and in need of care. “A son is a son until he takes a wife, a daughter is a daughter all of her life,” she quoted, ominously.

But my answer is still no. I will never, ever, provide home care. As someone in the so-called “Sandwich Generation” -- those caught between the demands of child rearing and elder care -- I refuse to be the filling.

Maybe it's because of my experience as a health care professional. I've worked in home care. I've witnessed, up close and personal, the toll it takes on the caregiver, and on the family. I've sat, holding the hand of a daughter, as she sobbed, exhausted from the strain of caring for her elderly mother. It was destroying her marriage, her children were miserable, her physical and emotional health was in ruins.

And she wasn't alone. Almost every home I was in as a health care aide was somewhere along the same continuum. Not everyone was at the same stage she was, but all were heading that direction.

I won't do that to my husband and children, nor to myself.

Too often, the argument is made, “Well, they took care of you!” when attempting to guilt an adult child into caring for an elderly or ill parent. This argument is ludicrous. There is no logic to it at all. First of all, children grow in skills and independence. While a newborn is completely dependent on their parents, a toddler is less so. And as the years go by, the dependence becomes less and less.

For the elderly, the opposite is true. Someone that is unable to live on their own becomes more dependent, not less.

Let's take a closer look at that argument, shall we? Your toddler is throwing a tantrum. She lashes out physically, kicking, hitting and biting. As the parent, you are able to physically remove the child from hurting themselves or others. You can remove the toy in their hand before they hit someone, or throw it across the room.

Now, imagine an adult, who has dementia, and lashes out. How can you possibly ensure their safety, or those of others around them?

Is that a safe, or healthy environment for anyone, let alone children in the home?

Even when dementia isn't an issue, there's still the reality that elder care can be a 24 hour a day job. Bathing, changing, dressing an infant or toddler is a vastly different situation than doing those same tasks for a full grown adult. If you think daycare is expensive, try pricing home care. I honestly don't know of any insurance that would cover around-the-clock staffing, and very few families could afford that out of pocket.

Then there also becomes the question of who provides care. Do both partners in the marriage work? Will one have to quit their job in order to provide elder care? Can they afford to do so? Can they afford not to do so, with the exorbitant costs of home care?

The cold reality is that providing eldercare means putting an entire family's life on hold. So many times, adult children are called "selfish" for not stepping up and offering to move in an elderly parent. I would suggest that someone is being selfish, but it's not the adult children. It's the parent.

Realistically, what does in-home elder care look like for the average family with children still at home? It looks like a nightmare. Decisions are made based around the needs of the elder, at a time where children should be -- and deserve to be -- the focus of their parents' time and energy. Children deserve to be in a home where they can laugh and run and play, but an elder in the home is unlikely to be able to tolerate that sort of noise and chaos.

Children deserve to be able to have parents attend their events, be it school, sports, or other extra curricular activities. This becomes an impossibility if there is an elder in the home that cannot manage that sort of outing, or cannot be left unattended for any period of time.

How is it reasonable, or anything but selfish, to expect your adult children to revolve their life, and that of their spouse and children, around your health care needs?

When did a parent's perspective change from, “I want my children to be fulfilled, successful and happy,” to, “I want my children to tend to my needs, and put those of everyone else on hold until I die.”? That's the reality of what parents who expect or demand their adult children to care for them in home, and refuse to consider assisted living or long term care facilities are essentially saying.

Some adult children don't even live in the same area as their parents. Myself, I haven't lived in the same time zone as my parents -- or my mother in law -- since before I met and married my husband. So, to provide care would require a major move for one party. Some folks don't even live in the same country as they grew up in, and where their parents still reside. What then? Uproot an elderly person from the only country and culture that they know? Or expect the adult children to uproot their entire lives, and possibly end their career, to provide elder care?

Some folks talk about elder care as a temporary arrangement. “If Mom's care becomes overwhelming, we'll place her in a facility.” Sounds reasonable, right? Here's a little-known truth that most people don't realize, and professionals will rarely admit to: when an elderly person is being taken care of by family members, they're deemed "safe" and "not at risk." That designation means that they are at the bottom of every waiting list, and will constantly have others placed ahead of them, as their needs are greater. The wait can be years after care has become overwhelming.

Also, the unspoken, underlying assumption, when it comes to elder care, seems to be that older people have been good parents, and are nice people. What of those that aren't? What of those parents who were negligent, toxic, even abusive? Is it a fair expectation that those who suffered as children should now be responsible for the care of their abusers? And inflict their childhood abuser upon their own children?

There are no easy answers to the looming dilemma of elder care. People are living longer than ever before, and statistics tell us that the Baby Boomer generation is going to require more care, for longer periods, than previous generations.

As a wife, a mother, I cannot, and will not put my husband and children through hands-on, in-home elder care. My commitments and responsibilities to them outweigh any I may have as a daughter or daughter-in-law.