Middle of the Sandwich

When an aging parent gets sick, you really start to understand what it feels like to be in a sandwich. Even if it's just one experience - the recovery from a blood clot, surgery, broken hip, pneumonia or any of the million things that tend to start happening as people age -- it starts to creep up on you.

Becoming the ‘one in the middle’ happens subtly. You’re not given the convenience of a warning or fanfare when you’ve arrived. Here’s how it all goes down:

You grow up and start adulting - getting married, having children of our own, growing our businesses or careers. Your children grow up themselves, becoming more independent, which gives you a sense of freedom. That lasts about twelve minutes before your parents become dependent on you. It’s a fleeting type of freedom. Yes, this is the case for lots of people, those blessed to have both - the children on one side and the parents on the other.

But when you’re a Catholic Cuban, this takes on a whole different meaning. It’s typical for Cubans to be raised in a 3-generation home. As it were, my children grew up in a 4-generation home. My granddaughter is growing up in a 4-generation home and because it’s what we do, it’s normal to us. That's more like a double-cheeseburger.


This summer kicked my ass. My mother-in-law passed away at the beginning of June at 99 years of age. She’d been battling the inevitable for the better part of the 3 years before her passing. Everyone in our household was involved, and that was our auxiliary force between the nurses and additional caretakers. Our front entrance was like a revolving door.

Not 10 days after her passing, my mother (who wasn’t necessarily the epitome of health but could still fend-ish for herself) developed a blood clot that required surgery and a 6 week hospital/rehab/hospital stay.

Thankfully a full recovery is expected. But at 84, “full recovery” takes on a whole new meaning. Promises are inconsistent and ambiguous, like a weather forecast. But that’s life, right? We set the bar for “health” lower and lower as we age. To put it kindly -- I'm sure she won’t be doing back-springs or climbing mountains any time soon.

Now that I'm in the position of "taking care" of my mother, I've been wondering how we parent our parents without them losing their place in this world? How far do we push? How demanding do we get of our expectations without them feeling disrespected? Granted it’s for their own good, of course, but do they know our intentions? Fuck, are our intentions even the best thing for them? They were our parents, after all. Wisdom comes with age and all that.

I've yet to find a definitive answer. Much like when we became parents ourselves, there are a million solutions to any problem, and lots of them are gray-area scenarios. But at least lots of us had our elders to guide us through our children’s infancy. It was comforting.

From the suggestions of ‘cocimiento de anis’ (watered down of course) for colic to the string on the forehead for hiccups, these little “tricks” eased our parenting anxiety. Obviously we needed their pediatricians, but they were really there to administer shots and antibiotics. Our Cuban remedies worked better than any script anyway.

We were okay turning down the authority of most modern medicine because our parents and theirs before them had always done the same. We did our best, loved unconditionally and prayed our hardest, wearing thin the Rosary beads that become a staple in our households and in our cars. But when you're parenting your parents -- when you've closed the gap between modern knowledge and your own hard-earned wisdom -- things become cloudy and challenging.


Lots of people in this sandwichuation (sandwich + situation, I’m sorry), are unsettled by their options. Our parents are living longer, dealing with diseases that they didn’t have to contend with when it came to their own parents.

Care for aging parents is constantly changing in a world where the expectancy keeps increasing. And of course the remedies of our youth aren’t quite what we need to stave off the more serious maladies they come face to face with.

This is new territory for us “middle ones,” but if you are one and you haven’t heard it lately, you are kicking ass at this and doing great.


I made a quick trip to the store earlier this week to purchase baby food, diapers and a baby monitor when my mother was released from the hospital. I laughed at the thought that a mere 30 years ago or so I was doing this very thing for my own children.

I remembered how much my Mom loves meatloaf and mashed potatoes. My grandfather and my husband liked it too, moons ago, so I used to make it once a week for dinner. My children, however, were not fond of it. That meant I'd have to make two dinners.

I’d ask what they wanted and the answers swayed back and forth between mac n cheese, chicken nuggets or spaghetti. In fact, on most Cuban dinner days, I remember having to have several options available for every different taste bud in our house.

Yesterday, I’d prepared to serve my mom that all-time favorite. When I told her we’d be having meatloaf and mashed potatoes, she asked if I could give her mac n cheese and spaghetti. My, how the world turns.


I’ve had so many conversations around this topic because people are usually fascinated that I lived with my mother and my mother-in-law for so many years. I’ve discovered some important things along the way. Things that’ll help you keep your sanity if or when you find yourself in my shoes:

*Side note: If you’re also living with your mother and mother-in-law, invest in Clairol or L’Oreal. You will be directly contributing thousands of dollars to the stock's meteoric rise with the buckets of reverse-aging creams you’ll be buying.

First, we are not responsible for our parents. Even as an only child I realize that I am not responsible for my mother nor was my husband responsible for his mother any more than parents are responsible for their grown children.

I will argue until I’m blue in the face that we are responsible for our young children because we chose to bring them into this world. Yes, they are ours to raise and care for and love on and spoil (there I said it), if spoiling is your choice. As far as our parents are concerned, they are not our responsibility. I’m sorry. For a perfect example, watch Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (Hepburn, Poitier, and Tracy).

It’s beautiful to be in a position to be able to help our parents, no doubt. But those of us who take on this role must do so out of love, not out of obligation or responsibility or paying back a debt. Who the fuck keeps score like that anyway?

When you look at the care of aging parents as a privilege or desire rather than an obligation, you are removing the sense of burden. It changes the entire tone of the relationship and I dare you to try it and prove me wrong.

Yes, it still means you need to wipe their asses on occasion, and feed them and find a sitter when life must go on, but they are no more a burden than our children were and I know we’ve never seen our children as a burden.

Try to remove the guilt bullshit that’s playing in your head and turn it into ‘I get to take care of them’ and even this has varying degrees of what it looks like. Taking care of them might look like wiping their asses or it might look like having the financial means to make sure they are taken care of and paying someone to wipe their asses. Whatever it looks like for you, you are taking care of them from a place of love not from anything else.

Secondly, I remember standing in line to buy my Mom a pill box -- you know the ones with the days of the week? Well, this week she graduated to a NASA-grade pill box with a.m.’s and p.m.’s and everything in between. As I stood there I couldn’t help but think of T.D. Jakes’ comment “Wherever you are, you made an appointment to be there.” At that particular moment it hit me like a ton of bricks.

With my children I have very clear rules:

1) They will never have to worry about me coming to live with them if I’m ever unable to take care of myself

2) The moment they see me stick my shoes in the freezer, they are to call the number I gave them and have me shipped off to one of those senior living communities where everyone has STD’s, smokes pot and plays poker all day (I’ve already selected mine).

3) I will be financially stable enough to retire on a cruise ship so they won’t have to worry about me.

I’m not even kidding on these - we really have had this conversation. It’s not that I would ever consider myself a burden to them, it’s because I’m making those appointments with myself today that I’ll take care of myself so that they don’t have to later. If there’s one thing we ‘middle of the sandwich’ people NEED to be paying attention to, is how we are taking care of ourselves so that our kids don’t have to deal with our bad decisions later. This we can control.

Finally, if you’re out there and in this situation, I know that sometimes you feel you have no one to talk to about it or that no one will understand. I promise that there are a lot more of us out there than you know. Taking care of aging parents is not a thing of the past or a burden or an obligation. It is something that we ‘get’ to do not because we are paying them back some invisible debt for bringing us into this world but because we love and honor them. That’s it.

Suggestion of the day: The best you can do is the best you can do so do your best, love unconditionally and pray, wear down those rosary beads if that’s your thing but pray.

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