Many of India’s middle-aged have become the sandwich generation, taking care of their elderly and the young. But what is it doing to them, especially the women?
It was in the early 90s that I came across an ardent ‘foreign’ devotee at the Sri Sathya Sai Baba Ashram in Puttaparthi.
I was intrigued by the story of her mother and Baba’s miracle. Being the sole caretaker of her mother suffering from Alzheimer’s, it had taken a toll on her emotional and physical well-being and also wrecked her marriage. She added further that within a week of knowing about Baba, her mother had mercifully moved on.
Experiencing the ambivalence of the first timer at the Ashram and operating from the widely preferred, moralistic platform of how we Indians revere the elders and don’t consider them a burden, I was aghast that death could be viewed as a relief. Moreover being younger, I couldn’t envisage a life without parents.
Changing The Paradigm
There have been a series of events in the last 50 years that has brought plenty of changes in the familial framework in India, and many of India’s middle-aged are looking at these changes squarely in its face and bearing the brunt.
A few of our parents adhered to the message, ‘We Two, Ours Two,’ having understood the financial advantage of a small family. Then there was a gradual disintegration of the joint family system caused by rapid urbanization where the children moved away from the household. The joint family had a decided advantage over nuclear because there was a division of duties and responsibilities which were shared alike.
Besides the above changes, there is a growing trend of parents living to be an octogenarian or a nonagenarian. Life expectancy in India has increased by 11 years since 1990. Despite the said medical advancement, the quality of life is far from good. As a friend remarked, “hospitals are like railway platform with increasing footfall.”
Above all, our daughters are doing as well as our sons, and hence there has been a steady increase in career-oriented youngsters.
Caught between the two worlds, India’s middle-aged are the sandwich generation. Many of them find themselves in the not so enviable position of not only taking care of their own ageing parents but also being in-loco parentis to their young grandchildren.
Ms Iyer, a bit shy of 50, shudders re-living the year 2018 while she was caught between her hospitalized mother and her married daughter who had come to her ‘ parent’s house’ for the delivery of her first child.
“I am the only daughter, and hence I stay with my septuagenarian parents. My Octogenarian mother-in-law lives with me and being a widow she likes to live by the rules a widow is supposed to abide by. I don’t remember having a good night’s sleep when my diabetic mother was absolutely demoralized with the thought of losing her leg. Trapped between taking care of her and almost losing my daughter due to post-delivery bleeding, I don’t know how I survived it all. Even today, I have none to comfort me as I juggle my day taking care of my mother-in-law and parents, the baby as my daughter is working, my son’s needs as he is preparing for his overseas studies.”
“So, when is your me time?” I ask of her.
Preceded by a snort that says it all, “I am supposed to do what’s to be done, right? We hardly have anyone. Moreover, extended relatives prefer to remain a bystander living in their own comfort zone. I don’t remember the last time I went out or took a walk as I am busy living the life to ease other’s lives. Sometimes, I realize my frustration is so deep that I lost my cool when my daughter and son-in-law returned from a movie on a Saturday. ”
Truth be told, I had no idea of how she could ease her busy life of not only taking care of 3 members of the older generation, an infant while her daughter is at work, besides taking care of her husband, son and her son-in-law. Unfortunately, in most Indian homes, the lady of the house is expected to work for the other’s comfort and her needs are ignored or worse not even acknowledged.
Usha Subramanian who has just crossed 60 years, says, “I have realized that all through my life I have been playing roles…a role of a dutiful daughter, wife, daughter-in-law, mother, mother-in-law and grandmother that I am now left wondering where am I in this equation?”
Subramanian has two daughters, one living close by and one overseas. She is a grandmother four times over. With both daughters soaring in their respective careers, Subramanian is a hands-on grandmother to the grandchildren who stay close by. She helps them during examinations while preparing goodies for them. “I feel that I am always there for one set of grandchildren and missing out totally on the other set.”
From the time she returned abruptly from her trip abroad in 2015 when her father suffered a stroke, she hasn’t got an opportunity to re-visit her daughter overseas.
“My octogenarian mother is not doing too well. Though I have my sisters to take turns, the heavy weight of having her bedridden is too taxing. I worry about how long this ordeal will continue,” she whispers shame-facedly.
Harsh truth when we almost hope for a permanent end to taking care of the older generation; yet it is the truth nevertheless.
“Despite doing so much, hardly anyone is happy… Parents are not happy because they feel we need to give them more time. Children are not happy because we aren’t there for them. Husbands have given up on us! We are permanently weighed down by guilt.”
As my aunt once removed said, “My father always told us to look ahead and walk and not keep turning back to look at our parents lest we trip and fall.” Unfortunately, many of India’s middle-aged have one eye towards the back and another towards the future and hence walk cross-eyed and are permanently stressed out.
The Way Forward
Taking care or giving care to loved ones is hugely satisfying as long as your needs are kept in mind as well. When I became the primary caretaker of my mother, I did my own share of mistakes of forgetting to take care of my needs, despite being a trained counsellor. When she refused to walk post a very successful hip replacement surgery, I was extremely frustrated and angry. “Your pent up resentment is more to do with keeping your own life on hold,” said my counsellor Lakshmi. K. “Get out the house more, meet people, exercise. Do what you like best. Get on with your own life, it will make caregiving a little more manageable,” she added, “Sometimes, we have to wrest out our own space.”
Lakshmi was right as caregiver burn out is a thing. You can read more about it here.
This realization that all members of a family have their own needs which has to be met should percolate across generations.
Similarly, grandparents love being around grandchildren. Young adults should realize that their own parents are individuals and hence have a life beyond parenting their grandchildren. I visited a house where the octogenarian was forced to take total responsibility of paying taxes and bills while the computer savvy working daughter had ‘no time’ to either pay them online or to teach her father to do so.
For hard-working young people, weekends might be a luxury, but the same holds true for their parents or in-laws who are taking care of their children during weekdays.
How about treating them to something of their choice? Unfortunately, it is women who bear the brunt in caregiving or taking care. It’s time to speak up and ask everyone around to share the load. It’s time to give the cape around your shoulder a rest!