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The Sandwich Generation
Mom with a View

The Sandwich Generation

Reaching middle age doesn't have to mean getting squished from our growing children on one side and our aging parents on the other.


The phone rang around 3 p.m. last week. I heard my friend Chava's frantic voice. "My mother's a wreck because the caregiver didn't show up for my father. I can't go help because I have parent-teacher conferences tonight. And to top it all off, I just can't seem to lose those extra five pounds and fit back into my dress for Shaindy's wedding."

She began to cry. Welcome to middle age.

As our life expectancy increases, we keep upping the standard for "middle-age." Although we wish everyone "until 120," I think that by 50, we have to acknowledge that we have hit a new reality. We are officially middle-aged, even though the aging baby boomers like to suggest that "50 is the new 40."

It's always wiser to accept reality than to rail against it. Being middle aged can be wonderful -- it all depends on our attitudes and the positive (or, God forbid, negative) connotations we bring to it. Perhaps the labels are misleading. An age of wisdom and renewed energy and vigor might be more uplifting (although less catchy).

Another damaging label that hits around the same time names us full-fledged, card-carrying members of "the sandwich generation." This is meant to convey the unappealing picture of being squished from both sides: our growing children on the one hand and our aging parents on the other.

There are certainly many challenges to this role. But the first is attitude. If we perceive ourselves as embattled (and embittered) parents and children, just barely weathering the storms from each side and keeping our heads above water, then the prognosis is indeed bleak and the label apt.

But what if we focus on the opportunity instead of the burden? On the pleasure instead of the pain? Aren't we lucky that our parents are still alive, that they can get to know their grandchildren?

Aren't we blessed to have children? And ones who can still make a relationship with their grandparents?

The mitzvah of honoring our parents is not a prescription for martyrdom.

That's just for starters. Yes, it can be a delicate balance sometimes. That's where we need sound, practical judgment and rabbinic guidance. The mitzvah of honoring our parents is not a prescription for martyrdom. We need to do what we can within the confines of our halachic mandate and our emotional and physical energy, but not beyond -- not at the cost of destruction to our own psyches and families.

There are many strategies to avoid reaching this point.

Involving our children makes time with grandparents, even ailing ones, an extension of family time, as opposed to an infringement upon it.

Approaching the task with joy encourages our children to participate in the same manner, and prevents their seeing it as a burden. (It also helps our own perspective.)

I was recently at the funeral of a 95-year-old man. He had been married 71 years and left behind, besides his wife and children, 14 grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren. At the funeral, his 8-year-old granddaughter spoke through her tears about how much she'd miss her zaidy. There wasn't a dry eye in the house because her emotion was so real and unvarnished. Was her time spent with her grandfather, even as he became ill, a burden or a gift?

For the very creative, family projects can be constructed -- family trees, recorded or written histories of a grandparent's life, home movies...there is much to do and to learn.

We are treading that fine line between compassion and the practical reality. We need to evaluate what we can do for our parents, what our children can do and what friends and social services can do. We need to explore what we are mandated to do by Jewish law and honestly assess what we are capable of doing. And we need to ask others for advice.

We want to embrace the opportunity to interact with our parents, to give back. And we want to evaluate our limitations so we don't feel like that proverbial sandwich.

I frequently refer to a story I once heard of a poor woman with numerous children (a story told many times with countless variations). One day, her husband brings home a treasure: one fresh egg. The woman is thrown into agony. Who should get this egg? Her oldest child? Her youngest child? Her daughter who is engaged? Should she divide it amongst them? She locks herself in her room, and eats the egg.

Yes, we have many responsibilities. We can cope with them, and even do more than cope by 1) taking care of ourselves, 2) recognizing our strengths and weaknesses, what we can do and what we can't (within the parameters of halacha) and ultimately 3) embracing our responsibilities.

If we feel imposed upon, if we expect more free time and undemanding, uncomplaining parents and children, we will be stuck in that sandwich generation. But, if we are grateful for our children and our parents, for the opportunities to give, for the strength and pleasure, then it will be a joy.

As with every phase of life, middle age should be welcomed and lived to the fullest. We worked hard to get here. We should use the wisdom of our experience and the patience (hopefully) developed to forge new, deeper and happier selves during this time.

We don't want to rush through any of our years (try telling that to small children). With a proper and optimistic perspective, we'll be able to tell younger friends -- with a smile on our faces and a twinkle in our eyes -- that they don't know what they're missing.

December 30, 2006

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Visitor Comments: 12

(12) Janetbellovin, January 3, 2007 4:09 PM

Thanks, I needed that!

I am grateful to you for your insights into the sandwich generation issues. However, the grandchildren are in Israel and I am left alone to care for 2 very secular unhappy people. I am trying hard to keep a positive attitude but its challenging to say the least!

(11) anonymous, January 1, 2007 8:47 PM

response to the abused person "chopped liver"

Boy, I hope you read this. I, too, was this person in your shoes. My mother married a non-jew , who was(still is) abusive, manipulative and so much that could pop into anyones' mind mother, at that time, was also abusive. They could have some love and other times it was on condition(so it was not love). whew!
So , now what? Well, it's like this, I spoke with my rabbi and others who specialize in thsi very area. THis is what I was told:
YEs, there are those parents who literally cut up their "parent card", I was told that my parents abuse over me and the other siblings was definately wrong and against Torah....that is rested between evil and illness. This, was very validating, because I was also told that, no , torah is not black and white in the Kibud Av V'aim laws(honoring thy father and thy mother.)
For me, I was quoted from great sources that it is not always in the "rights " of the parents and that there are definately situations(and today more so) that are upheld for the rights of the children. Hashem does not want that a parent should abuse his/her child and then turn around and say that, "you must obey me(mom or dad or both)because it says so in the Torah. No! Hashem does not justify abuse!!!!!!!!! There so many excellent one is Dr. Ben tzion Sorotzkin-a frum pyschotherapist..he has an amazing article titled(appropriately)" Honoring Abusive Parents." It will blow you provides halachic sources that will definately be of help to you.,It was (is) for me.Brachos to you on your path of healing.Be WEll.

(10) Anonymous, January 1, 2007 5:32 PM

To Chopped Liver in the Generation Sandwich

"Anyone have an answer?"

No, I wish I was wiser and did. But, I do know that there is a world-to-come, and it sounds like you are earning a beautiful share in it.

May you feel Hashem at your side through all your efforts.

(9) zvi tusk, January 1, 2007 1:34 PM


The only reason that there is a name to this situation is because of the Shoah. Prior to WWll, it was normal for 3 or 4 gewnerations to live in the same home. Because of the destruction of the families and the new start in the 40's and 50's, we now are faced with this situation without having any real experience in how to "handle" it. This is part of our learning experience. I speak as a son in law and as a son of 85 year old parents. The situation is what it is, how we behave is up to us. They gave to us their unconditional love. We owe them at least for that besides owing them for our very existance. How we behave towards our parents will show our children how to behave towards our generation.

(8) Dodi, January 1, 2007 10:32 AM

Re: Chopped Liver in the Sandwich Generation

My dear Anonynous,
I've been there, done that, and I know exactly what you mean. Indeed there is much resentment and anguish of the soul but consider this:even though the abuse was horrific and you were powerless to stop it, did it not have a component in who you are today? I come from a family of abusers, from my grandparents to my own abusers to me...and the abuse stopped here. In my aunts(2)families, it did not and the result is more and more misery. Hashem shapes us in the crucible of adversity, whether it be abuse at home, economic disadvantages, or whether we marry into it. Having been shaped, do we not decide *for ourselves* how it will affect us? Do we become a bottle of vinegar..or a bottle of honey? I have heard it said that to forgive someone is not for them, but for yourself. For if you do not forgive, you never move past the injustice. I buried my abuser and the enabler is someone I prize most highly. I pray for my enabler's continued well being continually, even though I know what happened. Because in the end, those horrible events shaped me into the strong, courageous person I know myself to be. Can you not consider that your enabler had his/her own burden in that relationship and that the impossible situation was the crucible he/she was molded in? Do you really want to be like hin/her? Being needy, demanding, and ungrateful? Or would you rather see him/her in the true light...this person never reached what Hashem had for them. They never reached who they really were. You, my dear, have that opportunity when you look past the pain, and see them for who they really are; someone who let the fire consume them, not someone who became a rare jewel in Hashem's hand. Let go of the resentment, remember that you are the work of HIS Hands, and you no longer need to hang on to the hurt. I know that I had to learn this last lesson before I could move past the abuse and become a truly loving person both to my "lower crust" and to the enabler's "upper crust". And surprise of surprises! My enabler doesn't even remember what happened. The mind edits what happens, but as we all surely know, Hashem is the One True Judge, and HE will surely call each of us to account. So what will your accounting be? Resentment and anger? or forgiveness and accomplishment? It's not just about you...but about how you relate to Hashem's world. After all, the sandwich isn't about the's about the filling. So are you peanut butter...or steak?

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