Simply Women & Home

Surving the Sandwich Years

Although we often foresee life getting easier when nappies and tantrums are but a distant memory, being sandwiched between the needs of our grown-up children and ageing parents can bring a whole host of challenges of its own. So how do we handle whatever this life stage throws at us with good grace while keeping a smile on our face? We ask an expert.

If your teenage years were tough, and your twenties like an awkward episode of Sex and the City, you might have expected the relatively settled midlife years to be a doddle. But coping with the struggles our adult children face while juggling the needs of elderly parents can test us like never before. Instead of hosting parties packed with friends and rainbow-hued Ottolenghi dishes, we find ourselves facing our offspring’s failure to launch and parents’ declining health, the equilibrium of our closest relationships under threat. We ask award-winning relationship therapist James Earl, who specialises in working with clients on communication issues, to run his eye over some common sandwich-year scenarios and offer his advice.  

When our youngest, Ben, left home 15 years ago, my wife and I celebrated: grocery bills were slashed and we could finally do things just the two of us. Then, Covid hit and Ben and his partner both lost their jobs, necessitating a move back in with us – along with their three under-10s. It’s been a year now, and the noise, sticky fingerprints and toys everywhere are trying our patience. How do we tell them we need our space back without causing a rift?

To have your child back home again when you might have expected a period of relative freedom is difficult at the best of times. Add in their partner, their children, and then covid in the background (which makes everything twice as difficult) and I’m not surprised you’re finding things a bit tough. Why not have a conversation focussed on them, where you tell them that while they will always have a home with you, they might like your help in restoring their independence ? Do they need help in looking for place? Do the need financial help finding a deposit? It may be that  in planning together you can make this a good experience. And, hopefully, get back a little much-needed independence yourself in due course!

My daughter recently flew our London nest to take up a job in Edinburgh and I am bereft without her. We talk often, but it’s nothing like it was, when we’d get our nails done, enjoy a spur-of-the-moment pizza lunch or giggle over a movie. Without her here, it’s become obvious my husband and I have drifted apart. He watches history documentaries, while I scroll through social media, looking at all the fun Lucy’s having without me. I’m beginning to think I should rent a flat near hers and make a fresh start myself. Why stay put, if I’m miserable?

When a child leave home it as often a crisis for the parents. On the one hand, you may be looking forward to a period of relative freedom, but you can also miss your child desperately, and -to make it worse - you may find your. marriage is no longer in a good place,. You may both be wondering what keeps you together now the immediate job of child-rearing is done. Very often by this stage, intimacy has slowed right down or even stopped, and even having fun can seem like hard work. My advice is - stay available to your daughter, so she knows you’re there whenever she needs you, but let her begin her own journey.  Meanwhile, open a conversation with your husband about what comes next. What do you both want?  Be hopeful that relationships can change - and that splitting up just the point your daughter breaks free might be disturbing for her.

My girl and I used to be like best friends, but since she moved out, everything’s changed. She’s been seeing an older man for several months and I’m convinced he’s the problem. Divorced, with kids not much younger than my daughter, I worry he’s having a midlife crisis and using her to bolster his ego. She, meanwhile, is doing nothing with her degree, and seems happy coasting along with a waitressing job, spending all her free time with him. I’m terrified she’s going to throw her future away over a man who’s just not worth it.

I  completely understand your concerns, and it would be strange if you didn’t worry about your daughter, whatever she was doing. We often say to our kids “ I dont mind what you do, I just want you to be happy’ but in fact we can have pretty strong ideas about what would make US happy - a partner of the same age, a good job using the degree, and so on. Perhaps it’s time to talk to your daughter about your legitimate concerns, but try and trust her to do it her way? It’s an old cliché, but we can only  learn the way by walking the path. Crucially, make your relationship as good as it can be, and she’ll share her doubts with you, ask you questions, and look to you for your wise advice when she wants it.

My father died eight years ago and, after the initial grieving, my mother managed well alone. She took up gardening and joined a knitting circle, making blankets for the premature baby unit in her local hospital. Lately, though, her health has deteriorated to the point of causing me sleepless nights. When I suggest she needs help – a daily carer, or to move into an assisted-living facility – she brushes it off, refusing even to see a GP about the worsening tremor in her hands. How do I get through to her?

This is such a worry for any child of elderly and ailing parents. Sometimes a parent can become distressed about their loss of ability and declining health, but not want to admit to themselves - or to you. If you try too hard to get through to them, she may feel attacked - and pull the drawbridge up. Perhaps the only way is to try and have a calm discussion with her about what she feels she wants or needs now, and in the future, without framing it too obviously in terms of her becoming frail. Ultimately, if a person doesn’t want help you can’t force them. This IS a real worry and my thoughts are with you.

My husband’s parents live nearby and we’ve always had a good relationship with them, as well as with my husband’s brother, who lives locally, and sister, when she’s visiting from Spain. My mother-in-law had a fall in 2019 and has been bedbound since. My father-in-law was her carer until his recent stroke. We now look after them between us, with a rota to keep us straight. My husband and I have demanding jobs, so can only help on weekends. I feel close to burnout, with less downtime than ever. I feel guilty that we can’t do more and resentful that my sister-in-law doesn’t share the load, by virtue of living abroad.

I absolutely understand both your sense of injustice, and the close-to-burnout feelings you’re having. Let's try and divide those two issues if we can. Firstly, you can ask your sister-in-law for more help: but that’s probably all you can do: we can ask people to change their behaviour but can never make them change. Perhaps you and your husband can work something out with your brother-in-law or by looking for help from local charities or other agencies. Ultimately, this is a question of how much you can reasonably be expected to take on: but life is never as simple as that, other people can be uncooperative, and social care provision in this county is in a shocking state as we all know. On the other issue of being close to burnout: I would  just  say it is important to take care of yourself too - otherwise you can’t take care of anyone else. I think everyone would acknowledge what a great job you are doing.

My dad, who’s 70, has always been my rock, celebrating my career highs, commiserating over lows and supporting me through my recent divorce. Lately, however, he seems to be suffering some sort of cognitive decline and I’m petrified it might be dementia. Mum died when I was 13 and Dad never remarried – he’s always seemed content living alone. But last Christmas, he started struggling to remember words. In one moment of confusion, he couldn’t remember how to turn his oven off. He’s now stopped driving, which I see as another alarming sign. Do these lapses point to him having Alzheimer’s, or could there be another reason?

It is terribly distressing when we see the sign of cognitive decline in someone we love. I would suggest that, so long as your dad agrees, you request a proper diagnosis so at least you both know what you’re dealing with. Your GP should be able to arrange this. Even if your worth fears are confirmed, you and your dad may be able to continue your fulfilling relationship and even find new ways to enjoy life together, with support.

James Earl Relationship Counselling

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