I’m at that age that some poetically call the Autumn of Life, and I’m approaching Winter more quickly than I care to admit. But whatever you call it, it’s a season when end of life issues demand more attention than they did in earlier years. I lost both my parents in the last two years, and I spend more time looking at sympathy cards than congratulation cards lately. We’ve had two deaths in our church family recently, and while the situations were very different in most ways, there was a similarity that is worth a little attention – cross-generational caregivers.
“Jane” is a fellow Baby Boomer, and when her mother’s health began to fail, she found herself in a common dilemma. Her mother was several states away, she was going to need constant care in the near future, and none of the options seemed like good ones. The solution came in the person of Jane’s daughter. She pulled up stakes in the West and moved in with her grandmother on the East Coast where she provided loving care and peace of mind for all concerned until her grandmother passed away about a month ago.
“John” was a long-time member of our church. I had seen his picture in the church directory, and I had spoken to his wife a time or two at the Senior Center, but I didn’t know him personally. When he lost his battle with Alzheimer’s last week, a call went out for covered dishes and volunteers. I made a dump cake and some garlic bread and showed up at the fellowship hall at the appointed hour to help serve lunch to friends and family before the funeral service. There was a huge crowd. One of our men hovered at the back of the room, ready to set up more tables and chairs if necessary. I stayed in the kitchen and visited with the other servers. Most of our work was done until it was time to clean up, so while we watched to make sure there was enough tea and flatware, one of the long-time Emory residents identified some of the guests for me. The one who really caught my attention was a young man in an electric blue shirt.
“That’s one of the grandsons. He quit school and moved in with his grandparents to help care for John toward the end.”
Two examples isn’t nearly enough to point to a trend, but if I am personally aware of two in such a short period of time, there are probably lots more incidents of cross-generational caregiving throughout the country. I Googled the subject but didn’t get a lot of results. I found a couple of articles (here and here) that referred to cross-generational caregiving, but they related it to the increase of multi-generational households. Both articles dealt with healthcare marketing and didn’t explore the subject further except to comment that advertising might need to be redirected a bit.
I also found a work on palliative care, but most of the references to cross-generational caregiving were about grandparents caring for grandchildren. The only reference I found about the care for dying people stated that most of it was done by women 50 and older and concluded with this statement: In palliative care, there is more likely to be within-generational than cross-generation care giving, which is different from other types of caring.
Regardless of whether my examples represent a trend, there are at least three reasons why a grandchild might care for a grandparent more easily than an adult child. First, if the grandchild has not yet started a family of his or her own and hasn’t put down permanent roots by purchasing a home, it might be easier to relocate. Both of the grandchildren in my story simply moved in with the patient. I’m sure there were complications to be worked out, but not nearly as many as in my case when we sold two houses and purchased a new one that would accommodate both families.
Second, a grandchild is not likely to have as much emotional baggage to bring into the situation as a child. Many people mellow as they age, and grandparents are noted for spoiling their grandchildren. On the other hand, the fact that a parent is terminally ill doesn’t erase a lifetime of conflict. Many adult children find it difficult to overcome old resentments and find the compassion needed to be a loving caregiver.
Finally, from a totally pragmatic point of view, the younger grandchild is much more suited to the physical rigors of caregiving. As Mom’s condition worsened, the physical demands on me increased. I offered support for her as she walked or got up from a chair, I bent over her while helping her with her bath, I knelt on the floor when I clipped her toenails or helped put on her socks and shoes. I knew it would only get worse as her body forgot how to function along with her mind, and my own body wasn’t getting any younger. I finally reached a breaking point one evening when Mom fell, and Dad and I almost ended up on the floor with her. (read about it) A younger caregiver without my physical limitations might have allowed her to stay at home longer instead of going into assisted living.
There’s no doubt that a young caregiver makes a huge sacrifice, putting his or her own life own hold for an unknown period of time, but there are compensations. Outside social contact may be limited, but the bonds formed in the last months of a loved one’s life can’t be formed on any social network or in any singles organization. Educational and career opportunities are severely curtailed for a while, but the experience might be invaluable later, especially in the healthcare field. Regardless of the cost, the emotional rewards are immeasurable, and as Baby Boomers continue to age, cross-generational caregiving may become the rule rather than the exception.
- Favorite Photos and Favorite Memories | by Linda Brendle (lifeaftercaregiving.wordpress.com)
- Caregivers’ Tributes to Those We Love | by Linda Brendle (lifeaftercaregiving.wordpress.com)