Saturday, February 21, 2009

On Buying Your Parents Diapers

Today I was in our local consignment shop, Duck Duck Goose, shopping for a shower gift when I remembered I had to also pick up a baby monitor....for my dad.

When my brother asked me if I could find one so he could keep an ear on our father I didn't really consider how it would feel to hold the package in my hands. Staring at the image of a doting mother and a cheery baby in its crib, I stood frozen by the unlikely dichotomy.

"This is for my dad," I said to the woman who runs the shop. "Talk about the sandwich generation," I added, catching the eye of a customer who nodded as though she understood.

"The Sandwich Generation" isn't a very glamorous or well-known term. Even last year's film, "The Savages" starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, didn't exactly bring the issue of "coping with elderly parents" into the mainstream any more than the notion of aging in reverse has.

Yet, millions of us are dealing with it every day and the reason we are "sandwiched" has to do with our children pulling our attention in the other direction at the same time.

I watched "The Savages" with great interest, leaning forward on the couch so as not to miss a single word. The brother and sister characters were not so different from me and my brother; they had a certain familiar annoyance with one another in the face of this unpleasant turn of events. Their father is no longer able to care for himself and needs to be moved into a nursing home. The siblings battle it out - each one bringing their own demons into the arena: how they feel about dad, their guilt, their frustration with their own lives and direction. There is a moment where the sister is on an airplane bringing their dad back home and he insists on making his way to the bathroom. Somehow, in the narrow airplane aisle, his baggy trousers fall to ground - leaving his daughter to gape at his over-sized white diapers. This illuminating moment is witnessed by a captive audience of strangers, as though the incident was not hugely uncomfortable on its own.

My parents wear diapers. I'm not exaggerating when I say that as soon as my children were out of diapers my parents were in them. Kid diapers come with images of princesses and superheroes on them. My friend joked, "Couldn't your dad's diapers come with say, a photo of Ed McMahon on them?" Though this made me laugh, I could not get the image of those giant-sized white adult diapers out of my head; nor how awful it is to see your parents wearing them as they toddle – always too late—to the toilet.

Both my parents became dysfunctional old people before our eyes. My father used to drive into Manhattan and watch my daughter when she was small. They'd eat at Joe Junior's diner together then hang around in the playground with all the nannies. From that level of independence my father quickly became a menace behind the wheel, lost most of his common sense, and suddenly developed a mean, argumentative streak.

On the heels of these changes my brother and I discovered that he was spending thousands of dollars a month on worthless coins from the infamously fraudulent Franklin Mint. I cried to him, "Dad…I could use that money to pay for preschool! For a college fund! For gymnastics – anything! What are you thinking?" But he truly believed that the coins were an excellent investment – perfect for hoarding until the kiddies were older.

However, this was not the case, we learned. Some coins worth only $75 were never going to be valued at the $1,500 my disillusioned father had paid for them. Eventually, we managed to wrestle control away from him with his coin craze. As he grew more confused and forgetful we were able to take his credit cards away. I took Power of Attorney and my brother and I created living wills complete with a "Do Not Resuscitate" order. Talk about cheery dinner conversation.

And so, for years now, my sick and elderly folks have been just a ventilator's breath away from being holed-up in a nursing home – yet they persist in this nearly vegetative state, still at home, under my brother's somewhat negligent care.

This label "Sandwich Generation" describes me, and not so much my brother, because I have my own kids to contend with while my parents regress into" babydom" at an alarming rate. I'm not surprised that in reference to this term Wikipedia states: "There are very few or no other articles that link to this one." So, not only do people not really know about this phenomenon, but they don't seem to care that much about it either. Can you really blame anyone? I'm surprised you even got this far in my blog.

On the other end of the "sandwich" are my young daughters. They make no bones about hating to go their grandparents' house; and I cannot fault them for that. Sometimes we pull into the driveway of my folks' house and I pause to prepare them: "Girls…I know this isn't easy. I know you don't like coming here and frankly, neither do I. But they're my parents and that's what children do. But - promise me - if I get ever this bad please smother me with a pillow, okay?"

They nod and look at me blankly. "What's 'smother' mean again?" the younger one asks. Ah, I say, it's just propping me up with a pillow to make me comfy....

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