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Guestwords: The Sandwich Generation

Wed, 07/05/2023 - 18:02

At 75 years old I find myself squarely in the sandwich generation. One slice of bread is my wonderful 9-month-old granddaughter. Watching her nervous system lay down the tracks to walk, talk, and interact with the world around her never ceases to bring me joy and a smile to my face.

In stark contrast, the other piece of bread is my 96-and-a-half-year-old mother-in-law, who is also living with us, increasingly retreating from the world.

Everything that my granddaughter does is new, vibrant, and alive. Everything my mother-in-law does is old, frail, and confused.

As a physician, I imagine the neurons and synapses in my granddaughter’s tiny body sprouting like a bamboo stalk in early springtime. With the older body I can visualize the pathways being pruned by an overzealous gardener, the road leading her to an unrecognizable landscape — she is lost.

Almost a century separating great-grandmother from great-grandchild, with me standing in between, observing the expansion and contraction of life. What is there for me to learn?

Both incredibly unsteady on their feet, like drunken sailors on a pitching vessel, while I run around trying to keep them both from falling. One speaking English words but making no sense, the other making sounds and communicating. Both wearing diapers, though the older one sometimes on the outside of her clothes, a bizarre fashion statement no doubt.

With my mother-in-law it feels like Groundhog Day for the last 950 days. Every day the same questions and every day no memory of the past. At my better moments, I have tremendous compassion for this highly educated and productive woman now reduced to a prisoner of her own mind and body. Who knows about her spirit?

And with my granddaughter every moment is new, rich with experiences, learning, growing, changing constantly, forging ahead fearlessly into her new world.

How fortunate I am to bear witness to these diametrically opposed aspects of the human condition. And yet there are notable similarities, one outstanding one being a total lack of responsibility for their actions. With my granddaughter it is completely acceptable for her to have no consideration for her actions — I do not expect it. But for my mother-in-law, who also takes no responsibility for her actions or inactions, I feel myself getting angry, even though I know she does not have a clue.

Still, I can watch myself getting angry and then troubled by seeing aspects of myself that I do not like. If I see the caretaking role as one of doing good work in the world, I can often rise to the occasion, but sometimes it is difficult. Sometimes I want to say to my mother-in-law, “Clean up your own mess, make your own food, wipe your own backside.” But I am aware enough to know it is not possible. My mother-in-law has as much chance of doing that as my granddaughter has of fixing her own dinner.

There is a Zen saying that I have often quoted to my patients, “The way to change the world is to change yourself.” These very different souls are not about to, nor can they, alter their behavior to accommodate me. So, what is there for me to do?

Accept responsibility for my own actions and well-being; I cannot outsource that. Pull up my big boy pants and take this sandwich of life for what it gives me — accept and appreciate it all.

Robert Abramson, M.D., lives in East Hampton and practices traditional Chinese acupuncture in Wainscott.

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