July 13, 2010
Those in the “sandwich generation” care for aging parents and their own children.
A photo by Kathleen Barry.
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Colleen McKirdy’s plate is full. As a wife and a mother of two
college-aged daughters, the 47-year-old teaches music at a local
college, offers private piano lessons in her home, moonlights as an
organist at a local Episcopal church, and is an active member of United
Methodist Women at her own church.
She belongs to the “sandwich generation,”
caring for aging parents and supporting children. According to the Pew
Research Center, currently just over 1 of every 8 Americans aged 40 to
60 is both raising a child and caring for a parent. About 7 million
adults care for their aging parents from a long distance.
McKirdy will tell you that being caught in the middle is “the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through.”
For the past seven years, she has watched her 83-year-old mother’s
health go downhill. Her mom, once an active professional woman and a
resourceful single parent, now has hearing problems, suffers from lung
disease, and recently endured a hip replacement and broken femur. She
still lives nearby in her own apartment, but McKirdy knows it won’t be
long before her mother moves into her family’s North Dakota home.
“Mom,” McKirdy says, “is afraid to go to a nursing home.”
“Having been an independent woman before, it was a big surprise when
she became so needy and dependent,” she says. “She managed her own life
for 75 years and then got to a point where she couldn’t do it anymore,
and I didn’t expect that.”
Missy Buchanan writes United Methodist Reporter’s “Aging Well” column
and has written two books dealing with aging and faith. She’s
accustomed to hearing and telling similar stories of adult children
blindsided by their parent’s aging issues. She’s found that many, if not
most, adult children are “clueless” about caring for their parents,
especially when it comes to eldercare concerns such as housing
alternatives and legal, financial and medical issues.
“All too often, a parent’s sudden health crisis forces them into
making quick decisions,” Buchanan says. “Most do not know the difference
between skilled nursing, continuum care and assisted living. They have
no idea what Medicare will pay for and what it won’t.”
Colleen McKirdy says that caring for her mother, while supporting her
two college-aged daughters, is “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Photo courtesy of Colleen McKirdy.
That lack of knowledge and preparation provides what Buchanan
considers an opportunity for the church to help families become more
knowledgeable about eldercare issues before a crisis comes.
“Churches can provide a network of support and encouragement as the
aging parent transitions through other life stages,” she says. “Although
the church has been slow to respond to the needs of older adults and
their families, it is very encouraging to see congregations offering
seminars and workshops for families with aging parents so they can be
proactive in arming children with information they will need one day.
Also on a good note, some churches have also begun adult daycare
programs; others are offering respite care.”
While her church friendships provide some support, for the most part
McKirdy feels like she is alone in navigating through this particular
life passage. Although she tries to stay centered by relying on her
friends, dabbling in her hobbies, exercising and eating right, she
admits that her spiritual life has “gone down the tubes.”
“I don’t have time to connect with God,” she says. “And when I do, my prayers are for my mom and my kids.”
Once again, Buchanan says, the church has an opportunity to reach out
and support people like McKirdy, whether they are within or outside the
walls of the church.
“The population is aging so quickly that we have a lot of catch-up to
do in meeting the needs of our older adults,” she says. “There is such
an emphasis on getting younger members into our pews, but we hav
e to be proactive and creative about how we minister to the gray-headed
people that are already there, because they are very much a reality.”
Buchanan asserts that both older adults and caregivers need to re-examine their attitudes toward aging.
“Instead of looking at aging with a sense of dread, we need to see it
as a part of God’s good plan,” she says. “When we use the lens of
faith, we begin to focus on the blessings instead of the hardships.”
*Susan Passi-Klaus is a writer for the Public Information team at United Methodist Communications.