11 ways being a sandwiched caregiver makes me a better mom

My mom was supposed to live to at least 95. Her mom had lived to 95, as had many of her female relatives. She ran her first marathon at age 60, piloted her own plane, and at age 70 showed absolutely no signs of slowing down.

So we never gave a moment’s thought as to how we’d care for her husband, thirteen years her senior, who we adoringly call Pop Pop.

We all trusted he was going to be in good hands.

But that changed on July 5, 2010.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, we (all 7 of us) were in charge of Pop Pop’s care.

For the first year-and-a-half after mom, Mike & Theresa’s passing, he was the picture of health. But, sadly, last winter, he suffered debilitating back pain, and, at 83, underwent not one, not two, but three major back surgeries in the span of five months.

Overnight, our confident, independent, hard-charging New Yorker was reduced to a shadow of his former self. We installed raised toilet seats, cheered him on as he bravely did his rounds of PT, checked in on him every day, and quietly wrung our hands with worry.

After an unbelievably tough spring, Pop Pop asked us if we would demanded we enable him to spend the summer at his favorite spot on earth – a secluded cabin near Lake Champlain. Not willing to deny him this joy, we all agreed to figure out, by hook or by crook, how to scrape together enough time off so he was never alone at the cabin.

My boys and I have been with him for the past 10 days and will be with him through Labor Day. Juggling the needs of a 3-year-old, a 6-year-old, and an ailing 83-year-old has been an amazing, sometimes scary, eye-opening experience that has unequivocally made me a better mom.

Here’s how:

Makes Me Appreciate the Circle of Life

the circle of life
The proximity to both ends of the circle of life has brought the beauty of each life stage into full relief. From the moment my boys arrived, I have felt a profound sadness as time stole my babies and started to make men out of them. But somehow being sandwiched between life’s two end points has put their growth in a happy perspective for me. I mourn the passing of time less and see their growth, not against my own 40 short years, but against an 80-year-plus spectrum, which has had the effect of slowing it all down some.

Builds my planning muscle

flex my planning muscle
Often what an 83-year-old and a 3-year-old want to do is different. Each day offers a Tetrus-like scheduling puzzle for me to figure out by 8:30am. I crashed and burned a fair amount the first week…but mercifully you get better with practice. I can already tell how my newly toned planning muscle that enables me to see ahead of every nook and cranny of the day is going to help when the boys head back to school.

Forces me to engage my young boys in lending a hand

teach kids to help
No matter how much I would like to be everywhere doing everything for everyone, I only have two hands. I find myself looking for ways to engage both of my boys in helping both me – and their grandfather – with small things around the house. The amazing thing is how eager both are to lend a hand. It has made me realize that everyone likes to feel needed and is something I will continue to do once we return home and resume normal life again in a few weeks.

Gives me no option but to live in the moment

Be present now
There is something about the intensity of the demands of both kids and ailing parents that fades everything else to black.

Pushes me creatively

build your creativity
Last week, Pop Pop had a bad accident that required an ER visit. The visit turned into a 7 hour check-up with multiple X-Rays and blood tests. My iPad batteries were only 20% charged and ran out within 60 minutes. My youngest son was mid-potty training and had on underwear. I had forgotten a change of pants in our rush to get out of the house. Nothing taxes creative muscles like trying to figure your way out of that kind of pickle.

Makes me incredibly grateful for what I have and where I am

be grateful for what you have
At 83, I know I will look back and feel lucky to have had the life I have now. Knowing that makes me happier, more relaxed, and better mom (and spouse) today.

Widens the perspective of my boys by two (and-a-half) generations

generations together widen perspectives
Tonight Pop Pop was doing really well. We had a yummy dinner of grilled pork chops, orzo, and salad. After dinner he threw on an old Harvey Feinstein album and belted out some show tunes. My two boys thought it was delightful and started singing too – albeit in gobbledygook. Moments later Pop Pop was teaching them songs from the 40s and telling them both what it was like back in the olden-days. They listened rapturously and I knew that they learned things tonight that they could never have learned from a documentary or history book.

Unleashes my inner school principal

caring for kids and a parent brings out my inner principal
I am constantly looking for ways to engage Pop Pop in the education of my boys — knowing full well that teaching keeps him young too. We have brought out his old microscope and opened up a whole new micro-universe for my guys. I have pushed him to teach the boys to fish, how to plane wood, and how to make a fire. And it cuts both ways: I have also pushed Will to teach Pop Pop how to play Uno. And use an iPad. This is an entirely new role for me — and one I can see has tremendous potential to enrich my boys lives in the future.

Makes me a better, more flexible cook

caring for kids and a parent make me a more flexible cook
Young ones are not the only ones with picky palates. Pop Pop has old-school meat-and-potato tastes. My boys have sweet teeth and hate potatoes. Some nights I get back three barely-picked-at plates. But I strive for nights where all plates have been scraped clean…and there is still decent nutritional value to what I have thrown together.

Helps me weave in the narrative of my own mom more gracefully

mom and matt
My boys cannot help but absorb stories about my mom while they are around the man who was married to her for the past twenty years. We also are living our lives in the groove of her old life here too. So we do things like make raspberry jam, weed her garden, and light her candles at dinner. It makes me so happy that they are getting huge doses of her just by being here.

Gives me distance from the rat race — an opportunity to question what it is I am choosing and why

caring for an elderly parent gives me a break from the rat race
Dropping everything to be here for three weeks was not easy. But now that I am here, all of the demands of work and regular life have lost their urgency. And that gives me the time and space I have so desperately needed to figure out what really matters. Upon my return I plan to trim the unnecessary busy-ness and do a better job of choosing to do only those things that really matter.

Are you a sandwiched caregiver? How has it made you a better parent?