by Susan Flynn
One in every eight Americans ages 40 to 60 currently care for both their children and their parents, according to Pew Center research. Until recently, author Kristine Bertini was among that statistic, a member of the so-called Sandwich Generation, sharing her home with her husband, 12- and 13-year-old stepdaughters, her father, her mother, who was battling Alzheimer’s disease, and three cats.
As a result, Bertini, a licensed psychologist, didn’t have to look far for material for her most recent book, Strength for the Sandwich Generation; Helping to Thrive While Simultaneously Caring for Our Kids and Our Aging Parents (Praeger Publishing, 2010).
“This is a phenomenon that’s going to run full swing as Baby Boomers are getting older and parents are living longer and we are going to need to find a way to manage it,” she says. “We are a very independent country but I think this has to happen more. We need each other.”
We recently caught up with Bertini, who also serves as director of health and counseling services at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. She lost both her parents last year, within three months of each other.
1 I like the subtitle. How is it possible to thrive in this scenario?
BERTINI: One of the most important things to remember is that we have choices. We can take each day and be grateful for our lives or we can choose to be miserable. You have to remind yourselves that this is an opportunity. You also need to have an open dialogue about the issues that may arise with everyone in the family. And the caregivers have to remember to put themselves first.
2 Can’t the stress of the situation be overwhelming at times?
BERTINI: I can remember being out in the yard in my hammock and crying my eyes out and knowing I had to dry my eyes and go inside and set that table and make dinner. You have to give yourself permission to have your grief and then you can find your joy. You are going to be exhausted. You are going to be resentful, and you are going to have your fits. Paying attention to your own feelings and needs is so critical.
3 How do you get the rest of the family to help?
BERTINI: Siblings are always a good place to start but if there is a distressed dynamic, hopefully you don’t stop there. You need to widen the circle. We had a support network of friends who would come and stay with our girls so we could sneak away for a night. What you don’t want is to end up feeling overwhelmed, because then you get resentful and the caring won’t be what it should be.
4 How do you help children adjust to grandparents moving in?
BERTINI: It’s very critical to have conversations about grandparents entering the home well before they come. Parents want to be sure the children feel included from the beginning so there are limited feelings of jealousy. Children need to feel like they are a part of the process – from setting up the grandparent’s room to being part of the dinner conversation.
5 Overall, you saw this as a positive experience for kids?
BERTINI: My kitchen is very, very tiny and at dinner time, my mother who had Alzheimer’s would stand right in front of the sink. My girls would gently direct her, and they were so patient, and kind, and I think the dinner table became very loving. They were creating those moments of meaning and attachment that are so important for our kids. My mother couldn’t follow the conversation but she still enjoyed the hand of one of her grandchildren on her shoulder. One of my girls wrote my Dad’s eulogy speech. They were very, very close.
The conversation has been edited for space. Susan Flynn is associate editor of the Boston Parents Paper.