The Parent Trap

Meet members of the sandwich generation: raising children, dealing with elderly parents—and sometimes feeling as if they’ve bitten off more than they can chew



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Chris St. Clair’s mother was firmly rooted in Breckenridge, Texas, population 6,000, with its three traffic lights and two grocery stores. She had graduated from the local high school and knew how many times the banks had changed names. She didn’t intend on leaving.

But in 2009, the 82-year-old woman’s weight dropped to 83 pounds. When a home nurse called to tell St. Clair, the Kensington resident jumped on a plane to Texas.

There, she found her mother’s refrigerator and pantry near empty. She learned that her mother had canceled Meals On Wheels, which had been delivering lunches and dinners, and that she had been driving around town against her doctor’s orders while recovering from cataract surgery.

“She was doing things that were going to cause her to die,” St. Clair says.

Seven times that year, St. Clair had flown to Texas to arrange her mother’s surgery, along with Meals On Wheels and a nurse to check in regularly. With a husband, two daughters and a full-time job setting up computer systems, it wasn’t easy, and St. Clair quickly ran through her annual leave. Still, she was confident that she had created a stable and comfortable environment for her mom.  

Now she was back in Texas, throwing her mother’s clothes into a suitcase in order to move her to Maryland. St. Clair wasn’t sure how it would work out; she just knew that she needed her mother closer.

That’s how Chris St. Clair became a member of the sandwich generation, the growing group of people who find themselves caring simultaneously for their children and for their parents. It’s a societal matter that can be traced to two trends: longer life spans, and the decision by couples to become parents later in life, not long before their parents begin needing care, too.

By 2030, 18 percent of the population will be over age 65, up from 13 percent in 2010, according to the Pew Research Center. The toll on the sandwich generation can be substantial, draining their time, finances and emotions, experts say. Many begin to neglect their own needs and sink into depression.

Some find the best answer is to relocate their parents and incorporate them into their own lives. In St. Clair’s case, that meant cleaning out and selling the family home, finding a good, affordable living arrangement for her mother near Kensington, signing up new doctors and establishing a support system that included transportation.

St. Clair’s neighbor, Annie Hayes, chose a different path. She and her siblings take turns having their mother stay in their homes. And in Bethesda, Maria Jimenez did the opposite: She moved her own family across town and into her mother’s house.

Others do what they can long-distance. Kathleen Hall’s parents are in Kentucky, and she tries to get there once a month for a long weekend. She also spends four to six hours a week trouble-shooting from her home in Kensington. Her mother is in the early stages of dementia, and in 2010 her father lost the use of his legs after surgery to replace a heart valve.

“Within a three-week period, he went from being caregiver to needing 24-hour care,” Hall says.

Her parents now live separately: Her mother is in an assisted living facility, and her father receives in-home care.

Hall belongs to a support group that meets over coffee after Sunday services at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Bethesda to exchange how-tos on everything from establishing power of attorney to finding in-home care providers.

“I’ve thought about bringing them here,” Hall says of her parents. But “it felt almost cruel to do that.” Both have extended families in Kentucky, including sisters, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Alzheimer’s experts have advised against moving them, she says. “Uprooting someone at this stage, they said, is incredibly traumatic.”

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