Raising Children, Caring for Parents

Today middle-aged people are increasingly dividing their time between caring for their children and aging parents. Dina Lipton, a working mother has put her career on hold to care for her ailing father. Also weighing in: Betsy Clark, the executive director of the National Association of Social Workers.

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TONY COX, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox in for Farai Chideya.

All this week, the NPR News shows are joining together for a series called, fittingly enough, Crossing the Divide. The series is looking at what it means to cross and collaborate across divides of all kinds - racial, economic, geographic, political and ethnic, among others. Today, we look at the problems middle-aged people face when they cross - reach across a generation to care for an aging parent.

According to a new survey, 42 million women in America are members of the sandwiched generation, that is women who bear the double burden of caring for their children and their aging parents. Dina Lipton is 45. She's married and has 5-year-old twin girls. She told NEWS & NOTES that last year, when her 77-year-old father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, she felt obligated to step in.

Ms. DINA LIPTON: He was living with his girlfriend for 17 years in San Diego when we found out this diagnosis. And my brother and I live in Los Angeles. So our goal, ultimately, was to get him to move up to L.A.

He wanted to stay in San Diego. After, his girlfriend couldn't really care for him anymore because of the anxiety of not really knowing when he was going to have an outburst and, you know, get frustrated and upset. And she didn't know how to deal with it, she told us that he had to move out. And at that point, we really knew that it was going to be best for him to go into an assisted living type community.

COX: Tell us about your day and how much stress you are under in terms of being available for any unanticipated phone calls or emergencies with regard to your father's care. Let's limit it to him first.

Ms. LIPTON: The stress - I don't even know how to put an amount on it. But I always feel like I'm walking on eggshells. When the phone rings, I hold my breath because I'm not sure. If it's going to be him, it's going to be a conversation that I'm going to have to try to make sense of. There is going to be a demand. I want you to do this and get me out of this place, you know. These people are crazy. There's nothing wrong with me, why am I here? It's all of those kind of things I deal with every single day.

COX: How do you deal with it, Dina?

Ms. LIPTON: You know, what I try to do with my dad is really deal with one issue at a time. And I say, well, we don't have a place for you to go to today. I just deal with today because if I try to explain the future, it doesn't work with him.

COX: What do you do when you're faced with a situation where there was a demand regarding your father, either he calls or the facility calls or his doctor calls and says, Dina, your dad, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera? At the same time, you have something to do or to deal with with your twin girls. What do you do then?

Ms. LIPTON: I try and work out everything, OK? So I try and, you know, I tell the doctor, well, I can get there at this time. Is this still going to work? If it's not going to work, then I call a friend who has a kid at the school and I say can you please, you know, attend to my kid's issue at school?

You know, I call in a friend. You know, there's a lot of guilt involved in this because even though you are doing something or the right thing for your father, you know it's the right thing, you have to do this. This is your father. I also have little kids who don't understand that part. There's always a juggling act going on with trying to keep them five and not have not explain all of this crazy stuff to them and dealing with my dad.

COX: You are a professional. You had a career. I said had.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LIPTON: I hope I still have.

COX: But you're not able to obviously attend to a full-time career, and to be a mother and a wife, and to be a care-giving daughter for your ailing father.

Ms. LIPTON: I tried it. I did try it. I'm a production designer for television and film. I am hoping to go back, but we'll see. I'm not sure.

COX: So, without getting too personal, the demands of caring for your father financially - that's not a demand on you.

Ms. LIPTON: Well, the financial aspect of it is a demand in the sense I'm not personally paying for it yet. But the organization of the finances, and we're in the process of getting conservatorship over my father, dealing with accountants and how are we going to stretch his money and for how long. And he has a trust. In his trust there's a directive for my brother and I to deal with things in a certain way, which he is fighting because he doesn't remember it. So there's all these, you know, legal and financial issues that we deal with on top of just dealing with him.

COX: Now, you have three brothers, correct?

Ms. LIPTON: I have three. Yeah.

COX: And you're the only girl?

Ms. LIPTON: I am the only girl.

COX: Is it because you are the only girl that you ended up stuck, in a sense, with the responsibility?

Ms. LIPTON: My guess is yes. But I mean I have one brother who is fantastic. If he wasn't in this with me, I probably would be committed myself at this point. I was the one that started out having to deal with him and I wrote one of my brothers, and I do think it is because I'm a girl.

COX: Really?

Ms. LIPTON: Yeah.

COX: Are you in this all the way?

Ms. LIPTON: I'm in this all the way. Yeah. Because he's my dad, you know. What are you going to do? I mean there are days I'm driving on the freeway and I say to myself keep driving. Just keep driving. But they all count on me. So, it's just that sometimes you lose you.

COX: Amidst all of this grief, this guilt, this stress, there must be in there somewhere for you a feeling of satisfaction, accomplishment, a feeling of love, a silver lining something. What is it?

Ms. LIPTON: You know, I think what it is is when you're faced with something like this, it's a real test, you know. It's a test to see how good of a human being you are. And I think for me and for my brother, we just feel like this is what we're supposed to do. And it does make you feel like, you know, you're passing it a test.

COX: Have you found a way to cope, a system, something that allows you to kind of go from day to day today?

Ms. LIPTON: You know, I don't think I have quite yet. I wish I had - I hope I find a system. I haven't really. Really, it's minute-by-minute and day-by-day and I just do the best I can.

COX: I suppose, Dina, the hardest thing for someone in the position like yours to do is to forgive yourself for what you are not able to do.

Ms. LIPTON: Yeah. You know what? I haven't figured that out. You know, I need to. I need to figure that out because I can't possibly do everything. It's enormous, really enormous.

COX: Thank you for sharing your story with us.

Ms. LIPTON: Oh, you're more than welcome.

COX: I appreciate it. Dina Lipton. She is one of 42 million women today negotiating the divide between the needs of their children and their aging parents.

This fact comes from a survey on sandwiched generation women cosponsored by the National Association of Social Workers. Dr. Betsy Clark is executive director of NASW. She says the women as caregiver is nothing new but in today's world more women than ever balance professional careers with family expectations, that they do the care giving.

Dr. BETSY CLARK (Executive Director, National Association of Social Workers): I think a lot of this is gender based I think because women have always had the caring roles. But in most families there is someone who's identified with that role. It maybe a man, for example, you may have a son who is identified as a problem solver or a son who's identified as a financial adviser. But often it is the woman who's identified as the caretaker or the caregiver. So that starts very early in life and often times it carries over into adulthood.

COX: Let's talk for a moment, Dr. Clark, if we can, about what you have described as the family crisis. As the situation when it first becomes known that an elderly parent is ill, seriously. This could involve hospitalization, let's say. But after that initial crisis, the family disperses and then one person or two is left holding the bag, so to speak.

Dr. CLARK: Well, we know from a crisis standpoint and crisis theory that a crisis last about 6 to 8 weeks. It's almost always time limited. That's what makes a crisis. So during that crisis, you've got a lot of support. But as soon as it sort of gets back to an evening keel, other people drift away back to their own lives.

And what happens with the person who's left in the caretaking role is that it becomes more of a chronic situation. You have that crisis to deal with, but then there'll be other crisis as the chronic illness goes on or as the aging process goes on. And sometimes the next crisis doesn't seem to have the same response from other family members because you're already dealing with it as that person who's been identified as the caregiver.

COX: How much of a cultural issue is this, and what kinds - what differences are you aware of between, you know, various groups of Americans, African-Americans and Latinos and whites with regard to how the issue of handling elder care is approached?

Dr. CLARK: I think other cultures, some other cultures, some cultures, some ethnic groups are very attuned to their elderly members. And I just came back from a trip to China, and they actually have a national elderly care day in China, that they have more reverence for the older person.

In our country we have always had our focus on younger people. And I think that different ethnic groups and cultures do that. I think African-Americans often have a very welcoming way to welcome their elderly into their whole community -family community.

Other groups I think do some of that. I think there was - as a country in the United States, we have not yet gotten to the point where we see the elderly as really, really crucial and think about how to meet their needs.

COX: Looking five years from now, and I'll bring it to a close with this, what do you see, what do you believe will be the landscape for us in America with regard to how we are able to take care of our parents and balance our lives in the workplace and take care of our children and ourselves, all at the same time.

Dr. CLARK: I think we as the boomers, as we boomers age, we are coming into adulthood certainly better educated, wealthier, better prepared in many ways. And I think that the boomer generation will be the ones to start demanding the change. And we certainly do need change because we have so many elderly out there that just aren't living the way we'd like them to live.

And many, many women who are so stuck in that role of trying to care for their children and adult or elderly parents that I think it has a terrible impact in their quality of life.

COX: Dr. Betsy Clark, thank you very much.

Dr. CLARK: You're welcome.

COX: Dr. Betsy Clark is executive director of the National Association of Social Workers. Her organization sponsored a recent survey looking at the issues facing women sandwiched between the needs of their children and the needs of their aging parents.

Just ahead, race and wealth at odds in a Georgia county. And why more blacks are checking the independent box on their voter ballot cards. This is NPR News.

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