by Loukia Zigoumis
photos by John Major
The sandwich generation puts a whole new twist on the notion of work-life balance. Stuck in the middle, more and more grownups are engaged in a juggling act that’s not just about taking care of the kids while managing a job, it’s also about caring for elderly parents or in-laws.
When the job is a full-time career, well, that worklife balance turns into more of a seesaw. Often, adult caregivers have to make tough choices that include switching careers, working from home, refusing a new job or reducing work hours—and living with a reduced salary—because of demands on the home front.
Caroline Wissing is one Ottawa resident who had to make some day-to-day changes. That’s because her 80-year-old mother, Janella, is now part of the household. As parents to two teenagers, Caroline and her husband, Jeff, had a busy life before her arrival. Their 15-year-old son, Cameron, is a ski instructor and their 13-year-old daughter, Jenna, skis competitively so during the winter they do a lot of driving to ski hills. Then there’s work. Caroline is a writer and author of the young adult novel Voiceless.
Needless to say, when her mother moved in there were some adjustments. “Definitely,” the soft-spoken 45-yearold admits. Now, “I work from home more, to take my mother to appointments and make sure she gets a midday meal.” There’s been a shift in thinking too. “I also had to grieve the loss of the mother I knew and get to know the person she’s become in older age. It’s difficult to see a loved one lose function and independence.”
It’s also a tight spot, sandwiched between two generations, and Caroline landed in it back in 2010. That’s when her father died unexpectedly from a massive stroke. Until then, her parents lived a happy retirement life on the other side of the country, in Victoria, British Columbia. There were health troubles, though.
He had a mild stroke and she got sick with septic shock, from which she never fully recovered. Then he passed away. At that point, Caroline’s role changed from visiting daughter to ongoing caregiver.
First, she moved her mother back to Ottawa and into a beautiful retirement spot so she could be close to family. It didn’t pan out for long, since Janella had a hard time adjusting to life on her own. Next, grandma came to live with the family. But for the sandwich-otherwise-known-as- Caroline, the lifestyle shakeup didn’t end there. She found herself spread thinner still when her mother was diagnosed with dementia. “That’s been the most difficult challenge so far,” she says.
Through all this, she has definitely felt “the squeeze” that characterizes the sandwich generation. “I had no idea the burden I’d be carrying today,” she points out. Most people don’t. However, the number of Canadians over the age of 45 now providing care for their parents has dramatically increased over the last several years, Statistics Canada reports. Projections show that by 2056, the population of Canadians 65 and older will more than double. Meanwhile, the nest isn’t emptying so fast either. Grown kids are in less of a hurry to move out and more likely to move back home. For the adults between the young and old, there’s a push at both ends that makes for a teetering buffet full of sandwich scenarios, with combinations that can include caring for kids, grandkids, parents and grandparents. The impact is felt right across the workforce. As many as 15 percent of sandwiched workers have had to reduce their work hours, while 20 percent have had to change their schedules, according to a recent Statistics Canada survey.
For those who are sandwiched, even by choice, competing demands can take a big bite out of life. As work-life balance goes, Caroline considers herself lucky. She’s employed by a business that allows her to work remotely several days a week. “The flexibility of my company really helps me. Also, since I’m a writer, I’m able to do a lot of my work from home.”
On the home front, there have been some compromises for the children too. For instance, Cameron moved from his second-floor bedroom to the basement so his grandmother could have a room close to the bathroom. He was good about it, his mom says. “He’s now pretty much taken over the entire basement, which he calls his man cave.” Although Caroline would prefer him to be upstairs with the rest of the family, luckily he likes his own space. She notes the kids are comfortable asking questions about the revised family dynamic, so she’s had plenty of opportunity to discuss why grandma lives with them and to explain why it is a permanent arrangement. “My husband has also been amazing about this. He knows how limited our choices are and has been so great about adjusting his lifestyle to suit the new situation.”
Besides the day-to-day stuff, the local writer is also challenged with finding ways her mother can stay involved in the community. “I want to get her out of the house doing things so she can be more social again … She used to golf and attend the theatre. She has limitations that make golf difficult [now], but I’d like to get her back into going to community theatre productions.”
Certainly, the challenges don’t let up. Members of Club Sandwich have to manage a wide range of ongoing tasks, from seeking health and wellness services for their elders to chauffeuring their kids to various activities. The added responsibilities can take a toll on a family, but Caroline says if household chores are delegated and if everyone cooperates in helping out, the shift to a new family normal can be very rewarding.
On the plus side, she loves having her mother around to share in family celebrations, birthdays and other important holidays. “When I published my novel, Voiceless, my mom came to the book launch, an event she might not have been able to attend [while] living way out in Victoria.”
The telling of stories has been another gift for all three generations. “Because of her cognitive issues, she remembers the very distant past better even than the time of my childhood,” Caroline says of Janella. “She often recalls her own childhood memories—some of which I’ve never heard—with much better clarity than recent or mid-distant events. It’s interesting to get these stories now, with my children here with us.” Family heirlooms, grandma’s tales can live on no matter what.