For Three-Generation Households, Things Can Get Complicated

Like many Westchester residents, Ellen Feig, 52, led a life as intricately choreographed as any ballet, raising two kids while commuting from Edgemont to New Jersey, where she works as an English professor at Bergen Community College. Then, last summer, Feig’s daily dance suddenly ramped up into an acrobatic routine worthy of Cirque du Soleil: “My mother, who had been a nursery-school teacher and lived on her own in Yonkers, came home one day with the left side of her face frozen,” Feig, who is divorced, recalls. The good news was that it wasn’t a stroke; her mom had developed Bell’s palsy, a paralysis of the facial nerve. But there has been plenty of sobering news since then, too. For starters, Feig’s mother now needs help with certain everyday tasks. And it’s Feig who’s had to provide that assistance. She’s officially joined the Sandwich Generation—that is, those caring for both their children and their aging parents.

Feig is hardly alone in our county, or country, in feeling the squeeze as America’s aging population soars. In 1980, just 25.5 million citizens were 65 or older; today, some 43 million of us are, a figure projected to rise to 56 million before the decade’s close, according to the United States Census Bureau estimates. And these older folks aren’t all down in Florida; they’re right in our backyard, literally. In fact, seniors comprise more than 14 percent of New York’s population, among the highest proportion in any state. Westchester’s elderly contingent is even larger, at 15 percent of all residents. So what happens when our beloved mothers and fathers, or uncles and aunts, can’t make it on their own anymore? 

Answer: It’s complicated. Very.

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“We’re almost at the perfect storm”

When a parent needs help, adult children must often step in on short notice, even if their own kids still need attention and supervision. Which makes the Sandwich Generation seem more like the Panini Generation—feeling the heat, and pressed from both sides. “I get calls every day, especially after holidays, from people who don’t know where to turn,” says Steven Katz, president of Sterling Care, a staffing firm in Greenwich, Connecticut, that provides in-home geriatric services across Westchester. “Often there’s been a family gathering, and the caller has seen their mom or dad, and suddenly realized they aren’t doing well. With baby boomers now retiring, we’re almost at the perfect storm.”

That’s probably why some Sandwich Generation members hire a geriatric-care manager, a pro who assesses a senior’s needs, then oversees his or her care at home or in a facility. While pricey—hourly rates for those services can range from $150 to $250, and are not covered by Medicare—the objectivity of a third party can be helpful. (Can’t afford this option? There’s plenty of less expensive help to be had; see sidebar, “Counting on the County.”) Jim Campbell, 49, relies on Sterling to help with his father, a Rye resident. “A year and a half ago, my dad had a busy day, including visiting the gym, then came home, put a steak on the grill, and had a stroke,” recalls Campbell, who grew up in Rye Brook. “He’s slowly recovering, but is right-side disabled.” Sterling designed a care plan that includes an in-home aide 12 hours daily. Still, Campbell, who lives in Wilton, Connecticut, with his wife and their 16-year-old daughter, frequently comes over and pitches in.

“There’s a lot of driving back and forth, 30 miles each way,” he acknowledges, doing things like giving his dad “mani-pedis and haircuts.” His mother and siblings help as well. Campbell continually juggles his dad’s demands with his daughter’s: “She volunteers and plays piano and travel field hockey,” he explains. “I’m trying to fit in multiple things with her on the weekend.” 

Meanwhile, back in Edgemont, Ellen Feig moved into her mother’s home, along with her 17-year-old daughter (a son, now 20, is at college, though he’s now home for the summer). “I took last summer off to take care of my mom,” she says, joking that she has “a honey-do list of tasks that’s a mile long, especially since I still have a teenage child at home.” Last on Feig’s list: her own needs. “I feel that I’ve kind of lost myself,” she admits. But she’s also found benefits in multi-generational living, especially for her children, who’ve risen to the occasion beautifully. “My daughter, out of the blue, will cook dinner and drive my mom places. My son will call my mother to check on her more often than he will call me!” she says. “They’ve become incredibly protective of her, and they really have a sense of what it means to age and how they should treat people who are aging.” 

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Care for Caregivers

As Campbell’s and Feig’s stories illustrate, caring for parents and kids simultaneously can be tough. If you find yourself in a similar position, don’t despair. These tips, from the experts and our neighbors in the trenches, can help make it easier on you and everyone else:

Speak early and often to your parents about their desires for senior care. “Have the first talk when they’re between 65 and 70 years old and are still relatively healthy, and have it again every five years, or after any major medical event,” Katz recommends. “Where would they want to go if something happens? Do they have advance directives in place?” Knowing their wishes will make things easier if they have a health crisis or injury. Make sure they’ve drawn up living wills, as well as health-care proxies and powers of attorney, so you or another trusted person can handle their care or act on their behalf in an emergency or if they are not well enough to handle their own affairs.

Learn as much as possible about your parents’ affairs while they are healthy, says Katz. Ask for the names and numbers of their doctors, as well as the location of their bank accounts, insurance (do they have long-term care policies?), and retirement funds. It’s also helpful to know about your parents’ Medicare or Medicaid status and whether they qualify for veterans’ or other special benefits. 

Keep tabs on your parents’ routines so you’ll notice a decline before it’s dire. If something starts to slip—say, hygiene, or an ability to drive or to manage finances —“you’ll have a better idea of the kind of support your parents need,” says Miriam Scholl, LMSW, president of Westchester Elder Care Consultants, LLC, a geriatric-care management practice in Ossining.

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Consult your parent’s physician promptly if anything about his or her health or behavior seems off, advises Scholl. “Don’t just chalk up a decline to age,” she cautions. And if you suspect your parent may be suffering from dementia, a call to the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association (800-272-3900) can be helpful, too.

Know what you can and can’t fix. “Many older adults are reluctant to recognize their limitations and give up control,” Scholl warns. If you’re having difficulty convincing a parent he or she needs care, try explaining that it’s for your peace of mind as well as your parent’s.

Surround yourself with support. Campbell’s father navigated a hospital stay and rehab before returning home, and, during that journey, “I was surprised at the lack of general moral support we sometimes encountered,” Campbell says. “Some people were more clinical, telling you what not to expect, rather than creating a positive atmosphere.” Medical personnel can forget the emotional aspects of a family’s situation, he learned. It’s not rude to ask them to accentuate the positive (especially within the patient’s earshot). 

Look for local resources to keep an elderly loved one safe and stimulated. For Feig, Westchester Community College has been a godsend: Retirees can take two classes there per semester for a nominal fee. “Mom can’t walk far, but we’ve figured out how to keep her in basically one location on campus, and she’s met people her age,” Feig says.

Don’t forget to take care of yourself, too. “Too often, family caregivers neglect their own health, and, within a short period, the emotional stress of caring for a loved one creates physical issues,” says J. Heinlein, president and owner of SYNERGY HomeCare of Westchester, a geriatric home-care provider in Hastings-on-Hudson. “If you get sick, who is going to take care of you and the person you are caring for?” he asks. Feig relies on exercise to stay strong and healthy: “My daughter and I go to the gym together,” she says. Work is a safety valve as well. “I love my job, and sometimes stay a little later there, since it’s my safe zone,” she confesses.

Feig’s Sandwich Generation days may soon be feeling a little less overstuffed: Her mother is planning to relocate to California, where another of her daughters will care for her. Feig’s children are already feeling wistful. “They’re mourning the fact that she’s leaving soon,” she says. “They’ve learned empathy and patience.” 

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