Sunday was fairly typical. The police picked up Mum, 73, wandering in distress near Halifax bus station, cold, disorientated and lost. Son, 15, was walking with a friend in north London when two older boys stopped them and demanded to know if they were dealing drugs before scrolling through their phones to check. Daughter, 18 was determined to go see her boyfriend despite feeling ill and Dad, 77, sat in a pub on the Yorkshire Moors nursing a pint of ale and a failing heart.
While all this was going on, I was mopping floors, cleaning dishes, hanging out washing, and trying to write a book. When Son, 15 arrived home panting because he’d run all the way home, my wife and I spent some time calming him down and reassuring him that such incidents are rare. When Daughter, 18 didn’t respond to texts asking when she was coming home, I realised my new phone was faulty, and at ten walked to the Tube station to await her return. Sometimes it feels like there’s never any time to switch off.
Having left home aged 16 and landing in London at 18, I find myself needing to return to Yorkshire to care for my parents more frequently now, which would be fine except my kids still need me – and I have nowhere to stay. Mum lives in sheltered housing and my presence would confuse her; there’s no room at dad’s because my stepbrother is there. Sometimes I travel there and back by train in a day, at considerable expense – not least to my sanity.
I’m far from alone. Around three per cent of the UK population (many of them members of so-called 'Generation X') is currently classed as being part of the sandwich generation, and this number is expected to rise sharply due to demographic changes. The fact that we’re often geographically more spread out from our families compounds the stress; the price of housing makes it harder to take in older relatives. Then there is the rise of the so-called 'beanpole family', where families have fewer children over several generations and there are fewer relatives to share the burden.
Mum was 18 when I was born, dad 22; yet by the time my second child was born I was almost forty, meaning that for most of my children’s lives I’ve also witnessed my parents deteriorating. In fact, when I hit forty, I still had four living grandparents; the last, my maternal grandfather, only died of Covid-related illness last year. Dad’s mum was in a Yorkshire care home for several years before she died; sometimes I wondered if dad would end up there at the same time.
One of the most upsetting and (if I’m honest) irritating things about having parents with dementia is the lack of interaction with their grandkids. My mum has practically forgotten her grandchildren; dad often forgets ages, and was seemingly unaware that his grand-daughter recently turned eighteen. I find myself selfishly wishing they had retained their marbles a bit longer, or wishing I’d had kids sooner, though with my lifestyle, this was impossible.
Mostly, I suppose I resent all the portrayals of multi-generational families on TV, with focused, supportive grandparents who live nearby and have good relations with their grandkids.
Perhaps the toughest part of being Generation Sandwich is that everyday life still demands so much time. Like most members of this not-so select club I still work 9-5, fielding calls from mum’s carers or emails from the kids’ schools, writing books and articles, waking at six to get the kids off to school and college, and by ten at night all I want to do is sleep. Incredibly, during the week I’m actually too tired to drink – not a sentence I ever thought I would write.
But there are upsides to this multi-generational juggling act; indeed, both my kids, born this Millennium, spent considerable time talking to relatives active during the War. And at least my own children won’t be spending their middle years dealing with our senile problems. By the time they reach my current age (55), I’ll be long gone.