‘Sandwich people’ face challenges of caring for their children and parents
“I was taking care of everyone. I was 37. I’m 40 now. I don’t know where the last three years of my life went.” ERIN SWENSON
There’s yet to be a sandwich named for Erin Swenson.
A “sandwich person” is a grown child pressed between children who need financial or medical help and parents who need some kind of assistance.
July is National Sandwich Generation month, recognizing the generation sandwiched between caring for their children while looking after aging parents.
More than 900,000 Louisianians, about a fifth of the population, are caregivers to elderly parents, according to statistics compiled by the AARP’s Public Policy Institute.
AARP estimates that unpaid caregivers in Louisiana provide services valued at $5.7 billion a year.
How many of those caregivers in Louisiana are also taking care of children is unclear, but in 2006, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that nationwide about 2 million women between the ages of 45 and 55 looked after their parents while taking care of children.
According to the online dictionary at http://www.merriam-webster.com, “sandwich generation” entered the language in 1987. Over the years, writers have modified the term to fit different situations.
Google “sandwich generation,” and you’ll find “club sandwiches,” people in their 50s or 60s who must deal with aging parents, adult children and grandchildren. “Clubs” may be in their 30s or 40s with young children, aging parents and grandparents who need health or financial care.
“Open faces” take care of elderly people who aren’t related to them.
Erin Swenson could be a fully dressed po-boy with a side of onion rings.
When the Swensons sat down for an interview, it looked like the set of “Modern Family.”
Erin is 40. Ken is 62. The wise-beyond-his-years child they had together, Scott, is 10. Ken has grown children by a previous marriage.
Sons are caregivers, too, but the Bureau of Labor statistics found daughters and daughters-in-law bore the brunt of caregiving. The extra work is physically, emotionally and financially draining.
Children have long cared for their elderly parents, but the care is more evident with the bulge in the population that is the “baby boom” generation, people living longer and women waiting longer to have children.
When Ken’s parents, Wayne, 87, and Ouida, 86, needed help, for health reasons, the younger Swensons moved in with Ken’s parents.
Erin and Ken moved in after selling their house.
“We were looking for a place to build a house,” said Ken Swenson. “It took awhile.”
It took 18 months.
“My friends say I just disappeared,” Erin Swenson said.
Money wasn’t a consideration. Wayne Swenson’s a developer who still goes to the office when he feels up to it. Son Ken is an engineer. Erin had her own public relations and marketing company which allowed her flexible hours.
“But I also had an 8-year-old to do homework with,” she said.
And shopping. Cooking. Giving Ouida Swenson the extra attention she required. Running the public relations and marketing business. And keeping an eye on the caregivers hired to help with both of Ken’s parents.
“I was taking care of everyone,” said Erin Swenson. “I was 37. I’m 40 now. I don’t know where the last three years of my life went.”
Other relatives live with the senior Swensons now, and Wayne’s health has improved.
The younger Swensons lived upstairs at Wayne and Ouida Swenson’s house. “We had our own space,” Erin said.
“It wasn’t Motel 6,” Ken said.
More like an airport with one door and a buzzer.
“We had visitors, family, children, children’s friends, grandkids,” Erin said.
“The door bell’s ringing and ringing and ringing,” Ken said.
Money is a big help, but it didn’t free Ken, Erin and Wayne of all responsibility for Ouida’s care.
Erin had the additional pressure of seeing to it that paid caregivers were doing what they were being paid to do.
“The maids weren’t caregivers,” Erin said. “We got caregivers and sitters. Some of them back talked.”
“Some couldn’t lift Mom or Dad,” Ken said.
After Erin ran her own background check on a dodgy caregiver, she questioned the screening done by the company that sent the caregiver over.
After Wayne Swenson’s health improved, he took the night shift.
“Ken just couldn’t do it,” Erin said.
Erin Swenson likes her mother-in-law which made diaper changing, while not easy, feel like less an invasion of the older woman’s privacy, Swenson said.
“Mom has a form of dementia,” Ken said, “but she knows what’s going on.”
“I love Kenny’s mother,” Erin said. “She can be difficult. So can I.”
Scott Swenson, who’s 10 now, remembers shopping with his mother when he and his parents lived with his grandparents.
“We grocery shopped for everybody,” Erin said. “We picked up medicine and diapers.”
“Don’t forget the wipes,” Scott said.
Erin’s parents are Ken’s age. She knows their care could fall to her one day, though her mother and father have told her they’ve provided for their own elder care.
Though Erin, Ken and Scott live in their own house now, a house not five minutes away from Wayne and Ouida, Erin is still the dutiful daughter-in-law.
As vice president for communications, public relations and events at the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank, Erin sees the line of cars the last Wednesday of the month waiting to pick up boxes of food for elderly people.
“I saw what my mother’s parents went through,” she said. “It’s touching and sad. You know you’re giving them what’s going to help take them over the next couple of weeks. No one should go hungry, especially the elderly.”
“Who do you want to take care of?” Ken Swenson asked son, Scott. “Me or your mother?”
Scott, wise in the ways of elder care, said, “Depends on who dies first.”