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Children Parenting Their Parents

By: Rabbi Simcha Feuerman  

Does this scene seem familiar to you? 

"Steven, that woman you sent over yesterday -- she is stealing, so I threw her out!" 

"Dad, how do you know she was stealing?" 

"It was obvious. I didn't like the joke she was making on the phone with her friend, so I began to suspect. I left $1.78 on my night table, and when I came back from the bathroom, there was only 78 cents. You see, I caught her red-handed!" 

"But Dad, this is the third person you have thrown out. The manager at the agency said that soon he won't be able to find anyone to work at your home." 

"Achh Steven, I don't need any help, I got along just fine all these years since your mother, a good woman, passed away. This home help is really just a waste of money anyway. By the way, the light blew out in the kitchen, do you think you can come by after work and put in a new bulb? Last night, I stubbed my toe when I tried to get a drink." 

"Dad, why didn't you call the aide to bring you a drink?" 

"I didn't want to bother her in the middle of the night." 

"Dad, sometimes I don't understand your thinking. First you complain that she steals, and then you don't want to waste the money, and then you don't want to bother her?!?" 

"Like I said Steven, this whole home care business is a waste of money. The main thing is, I am lucky to have such a good son who comes by and helps out from time to time." 

"But Dad, I mean that's the point. I am stressed at work these days with several deadlines approaching, and though I love to visit with you and the kids, when you fight with the help instead of working with them, it makes it so much harder for me. Even if the aide stole a dollar or two, you have over $200,000 in the bank and you worked hard all your life. Why not use a little of that money now to help make things easier. Why not give the lady a tip and ask her to put in the bulb?" 

"Steven, I agree that it is good to spend money on worthwhile things, like your children, but I can't see wasting it and giving it away to these "lazy no-goodnicks." 

[Steven's secretary interrupts the conversation: BEEP] "Mr. Goodson, your son's principal is on line 2. He says David was fighting again and he wants you to come down to the school to pick him up…" 

Our hapless hero of this vignette, Steven, belongs to what is known as the "Sandwich Generation." This moniker appropriately describes the position many parents in their 40's and 50's find themselves today; caught or "sandwiched" between the demands of their growing family and the needs of their aging parents. These pressures come at a time when there is a need to put one's full energy into one's career to meet the increasing financial demands of a growing family. These expenses include bar mitzvahs, college tuition, weddings, and expanding the house. 

Sorting Out the Needs 
In a moment of crisis, there really is nothing Steven can do but try his best to be a good son. However, over the long run, Steven can be pro-active and address some of the complex family dynamics and how they interplay with his father's social and psychological needs. Such an approach is not just about providing physical care such as nursing and home health aides, but also a program of social and emotional support for his father and the family members involved as caretakers. As a result of the growing needs of families similar to Steven, there are agencies and social workers in private practice who specialize in working with the elderly and their families. A "sandwich generation child" such as Steven can gain relief by consulting with a professional in geriatric social work to resolve issues such as the ones described below. 

Often times, families designate a caretaker sibling. For some reason, one child is chosen to be the caretaker, such as an eldest or youngest child. It may have to do with geography or birth order, but usually there are other psychological reasons that are difficult to deal with and see objectively. When one sibling is becomes overly responsible, it can have catastrophic consequences on his/her personal life. Situations such as this can strain marriages, and indeed, even prevent marriages. The guilt and resentment can build to a point where a person feels helpless and overwhelmed. If there are other siblings, a plan needs to be implemented where they can provide supports as well. If the siblings are unable to or refuse to help, this must be resolved whether the cause is psychological (e.g., old resentments and fears), or environmental (e.g., distance, busy schedules). Even if a sibling lives far away, he or she can be recruited to assist by making more frequent phone calls, and/or offering to assist the caretaker sibling in some other way. 

The system of supports such as phone calls and visits are critical because an elderly lonely parent can mix physical and emotional needs together in a way that compounds a problem. There are some people who feel more comfortable being vulnerable and getting nurture for a physical need, instead of an emotional need. This is particularly true for the previous generations, who grew up under harsh environmental conditions. If one thinks about it, in times of poverty and stress the persons who received the most nurture and attention were the physically ill. After all, if someone was ill or in danger of dying, personal ethics and community mores called for immediate attention. However, if someone felt lonely or sad, there was no such imperative. Thus the previous generations were socialized to get their emotional needs met through physical ailments -- real or imagined! 

Some children report experiencing the "Weekend Syndrome" where there are more emergencies and crises on weekends than on other days. This is not surprising in light of what we have discussed; that emotional needs can be expressed with physical ailments. Weekends, a time usually spent with family and close friends, can be lonely and difficult for a person who has memories of spouses, friends and neighbors who are no longer in this world. 

Regarding our earlier vignette, Steven's father has two needs. First, he really enjoys and loves his son and wants to see him. Second, he needs some physical assistance in maintaining his home and his health. Steven's father is using the more concrete physical demands as way to secure and ensure Steven's emotional involvement in his life. Subconsciously, Steven's father may be sabotaging his relationship with the aides as way of keeping close to Steven. Of course, the moral and emotional obligations of honoring one's parents make it difficult to confront this matter directly, but Steven can address the matter indirectly by asking if he and his siblings visit his father often enough. If they only respond when there is a crisis, psychologically speaking, his father will unconsciously learn to have "emergencies" whenever he misses Steven! 

With a combination of expert therapeutic guidance and environmental supports, there are ways that one can change a family's psychological assumptions so that the burden be shared by both the parent and the other siblings. 

The Lifetime Care Foundation for the Jewish Disabled, a non-profit organization, was established in order to help families of persons with disabilities (psychiatric, physical, developmental), the homebound, and the elderly use their resources to create customized care plans. This is accomplished via: Public lectures and seminars, Referrals to qualified eldercare attorneys, a charitable pooled trust which can shield assets from SSI and Medicaid, a fee for service intensive case management program, and Legal guardianship. The Lifetime Care team can provide the emotional and physical care to step in fill in for relatives at times when they are not able to. For more information, you may contact Rabbi Simcha Feuerman at 718-851-8906. 

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