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Alana Kirk on the trauma of caring for her children and her mother at the same time

Alana had just given birth to her third child when her mum had a catastrophic stroke. For five guilt-ridden years she hurtled between her home in Dublin and her parents’ house in Belfast. This is how she survived as a member of the Sandwich Generation.

Published 24/02/2016

So close: Alana Kirk and her mum in hospital after the birth of her third baby Ruby
So close: Alana Kirk and her mum in hospital after the birth of her third baby Ruby
Loving family: Alana with daughters Daisy and Poppy
Family time: Alana Kirk with her three daughters

When I first moved to Dublin and started visiting my parents back in Belfast, it was a four and a half hour drive. It was so long I would have to stop for lunch in Dundalk. Thankfully, with the new motorway completed, it was cut to two hours. Little did I know, however, that even with that improved journey time, when my life took an unexpected turn, that long, long road would never seem to end.

Despite living in different cities, my mum had always played an active part in my life, especially once I started having a family of my own. As I began learning how to be a mother, she mothered me all over again. She was always on the Belfast to Dublin train, and from the moment I picked her up from Connolly station, she would launch full throttle into "care-for-me" mode, making sure I sat down for a cup of tea, while she cleaned my cooker top, and ironed my underwear. And so, when I went into hospital for the birth of my third daughter Ruby, I fully expected mum to help me with the childcare of three children under five in the years that followed.

In fact, she was with me at the birth and had spent the rest of the week caring for my other two young daughters. When she spoke to me on the phone, excited about me bringing my new baby home the next morning, she told me she loved me. It would be the last time she ever said my name. She read my girls a bedtime story and kissed them goodnight. And then her brain exploded.

As the stroke took effect, my glamorous, socially active mum was left, almost immediately, paralysed, doubly incontinent and brain damaged.

The years that I had expected to spend looking after my children, being looked after by my mum, and her helping with child-care, were immediately replaced with years of me caught in the chaos of both child-care and parent-care. Her "care-for-me" days had abruptly ended and my "care-for-her" days had unexpectedly begun.

I have called these last five years my Sandwich Years, torn between the needs of the two ends of my love life - my children and my parents. The Sandwich Generation is not new. The phrase was coined a few decades ago to describe those caught in the double whammy of care. But the reason it is becoming more relevant and prevalent is the increasing trend of women giving birth later and parents living longer. The average age of women giving birth has increased steadily, and last year, the number of women aged 35 and over giving birth exceeded those of 25 and younger for the first time.

Life expectancy has also increased and our population is ageing. The number of older people in Northern Ireland is predicted to grow dramatically in the next few years with the NI Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) showing the numbers of those aged 65 and over are projected to increase by a quarter by 2022.

With those two trends combined, we are seeing a perfect storm of care for those left to raise and support both ends of the lifeline, with them sandwiched in the middle. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is predominantly women who are more likely to bear the brunt. A recent Carers UK study found women were four times more likely than men to have given up work due to multiple caring responsibilities. It can leave many over-stretched, over-whelmed, and over a barrel.  

My sandwich years arrived by ambulance. But for many, the role reversal from child of their parent to parent of their parent can be less dramatic. But no less challenging.

Sometimes they arrive quietly, surreptitiously, without fanfare. Suddenly the balls you are juggling to maintain your old family and your new family are falling down around your ears. Perhaps it starts with a fall. Or you notice a slowing down or a reduced ability to help. You are caring for your children and you think your parents are caring for you, and your children.

But slowly you discover they need more support and in a gradual process you switch roles of cared for and carer. Or it could be a hospital appointment that turns your world upside down. A diagnosis that will change everything. Regardless of the dysfunction or intimacy of that parent-child relationship, regardless of how long or how little time you have had, regardless of the beauty or horror of those final moments, losing a parent is a seismic event in anyone’s life.

It is one of those rare lines that will always divide our lives into before and after. But sometimes the line is not clear cut. Losing a parent can be hugely traumatic. But caring for a parent can be extremely challenging, as often that loss happens over a long period of time.  And sometimes it involves a level of care that we are just not prepared for. 

It can have a negative impact on those of us who find ourselves in a perfect storm of care. Recent research by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies shows that those caught in the sandwich years are becoming one of the hardest pressed generations, with women more likely to face the pressure of simultaneously shouldering responsibility for the young and old ends of their family. Recent research by Charity Carers UK into the sandwich generation found there are a staggering 2.4 million people sandwiched between providing support to an older adult with disabilities or chronic illnesses who have children to care for as well.

A fifth of 45 to 60-year-olds are actively supporting parents while their children are still at home, and for many, juggling these care-giving roles is putting both financial and personal strain on the family. Add to the mix the fact that many of us have chosen to live further away from our parents than previous generations and the strain becomes even harder. For me, I spent nearly six years travelling up the Dublin-Belfast motorway, often leaving my two older daughters behind. It meant wrenching decisions, and terrible choices, always being pulled between the needs of my children and home, and my parents.

I spent the first year literally spoon-feeding my baby and my mum. Changing their nappies. Only communicating through their eyes. Cleaning two houses. All of us had to adapt. The person who had cared for our family now needed that family to care for her.

In the immediate days after mum’s stroke, the doctors prepared us for the worst. They meant death, but she survived and the worse was still to come.  She survived, but did not recover enough to really live. She needed full-time care.

My 75-year-old dad, a fit and practical man, was deemed capable of caring for mum at home in Belfast, supported by an impressive community care package. This included carers who came to the house to change and wash my mum. My dad was responsible for all other care, and with her bed-bound, he became house-bound. An avid walker and historian of the Mourne Mountains and Tollymore Park, a volunteer gardener at Mount Stewart and a ex-marathon runner who still jogged three times a week, this had a profound impact on his life.

With me, a mother to three very small children living in Dublin, and my brother, who worked and lived with his family in Edinburgh, this too had an immediate and demanding impact on our lives. It has been a long, hard journey for us all. I am at the end of this part of my sandwich years now as my mum sadly has reached the end of hers.

As a family we are with her in her final days, caring for her to the end. My sandwich years are not over though, as my dad will need emotional support and company, but for now at least, they will be easier. I will not have to make so many journeys up and down that long, long road as he can leave the house and travel to us.  

I had no idea what caring for a parent would mean. Overnight I went from being mothered to caring for my mother. It has been extraordinarily challenging.  The pull nearly tore me apart at times and during the process I learnt the hard way that the most important part of being caught between child-care and parent-care is to self-care. But as I look back and I see the girls and woman I was sandwiched between, I know it has also been an extraordinary privilege. 

Daughter, Mother, Me: A memoir of love, loss and dirty dishes by Alana Kirk, is published by Hachette Ireland and is available in bookshops and Amazon, £13.99

Belfast Telegraph

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