Inside the sandwich generation

Jan and Reneé Peacock, center, are in the “sandwich generation,” caring for Jan’s mom, Mary, left, along with several children, grandchildren and foster children.

More and more, people in their 40s, 50s and 60s are finding themselves in the middle of the generational “sandwich,” caring for both parents and children, either all in one home or in separate residences. Being the filling in the sandwich means trying to fulfill the needs of both slices of bread—a daunting task but not impossible.

Full house

Reneé Peacock and her husband, Jan, have been taking care of kids since “dinosaurs roamed the Earth,” Reneé joked.

Actually, they’ve been parents since 1983, to their biological children and grandchildren, and to foster and adopted kids, some with special physical and mental needs.

In 2003, Jan’s mother moved into their home on Orchard Mesa after retiring from a career as a caretaker at the Grand Junction Regional Center.

“Even though we look out for her, she is an invaluable part of our household. She says being around the toddlers helps keep her young!” Reneé said.

In addition to a houseful of people, the Peacocks have two dogs, 11 ducks and 30 chickens. They also raise cherries, apples, grapes, pears and peaches. They buy food in bulk, and preserve even more. There’s one refrigerator just for milk and two more for everything else. The crockpot is Reneé’s go-to appliance for meals.

Jan retired from the U.S. Navy and now works as a biomedical technician at the Grand Junction VA Medical Center. Reneé retired from a career as a medical assistant last year in order to keep up with their ever-expanding population of people and livestock.

Blessings in disguise

Jennifer McKenzie, 52, a non-denominational chaplain at HopeWest hospice care, spreads her time and energy between her two teenaged sons and her aging parents.

“My mother is in a nursing home, but I spend time with my dad at his home, helping him cope,” she said.

Her father comes to the McKenzie house every Sunday for a family dinner.

McKenzie has been doing double duty for the last eight years, balancing family relationships and work. She’s available all hours for her job at HopeWest, attends school events for her high school sophomore son and helps her father advocate for her mother and him. The last is particularly challenging.

“You have to navigate the changing parent/child relationship,” McKenzie said, “and that can create a lot of tension.”

McKenzie sees benefits where others may see only pressure. She feels blessed to be able to have a connection with her older family members.

“I’m able to have a deeper relationship with my parents,” she said. “It’s like a treasure hunt when I go through their physical stuff and hear stories about each piece.”

McKenzie also treasures the memories her parents have shared with her: how they met, when the kids were born, fond memories of childhood. She sees the life lessons they taught her as godsends.

“Cranky moments”

Challenges abound for everyone in the sandwich.

“Keeping the peace with so many people underfoot is a real test of patience. Our circus can make meals and laundry a little chaotic,” Reneé said.

Two white boards hang in the entry hall of their home, scheduling school events, social worker visits to the foster kids, karate lessons and more.

“If it doesn’t get on the board, it doesn’t get done,” said Reneé.

Both the Peacocks and McKenzie have coping strategies.

“You have to laugh things off rather than dwell on them,” Reneé said. “Crankiness and poor health sometimes go hand in hand. We have to remind the younger children of this when they notice Grandma getting testy. We’ve all had our share of cranky moments and we hold each other accountable when this happens.”

To maintain relational balance, the Peacocks sit down every few months and have a family meeting among the adults to see what they can improve and ask how they can better support each other.

The Peacocks pledge to take in children as long as there is such a need for stable homes, and McKenzie is committed to maintaining quality of life for herself and everyone around her.

“We find that it can be done if we’re all on the same page,” said Reneé.

McKenzie encourages her family members to keep in touch with friends and relatives, and to engage in social occasions.

“You need friends for those times you want to confess, ‘I’m having a crappy day,’” she said.

She also recognizes the importance of self-care.

“You can’t give to others if you’re exhausted. Find things that re-energize you, like a couple of hours alone with a good book or pursuing a hobby. Get a coloring book, write in a journal, walk the dog,” McKenzie said.

Finding gold

Being responsible for a decades-wide range of people can be frustrating, challenging and even discouraging, but both McKenzie and the Peacocks have found the gold amid the dross.

“There is an amazing sense of accomplishment when we are able to learn from one another and acquire new skills,” Reneé said. “It’s rewarding to see multiple generations benefiting from one another.”

The Peacocks’ short-term goal is to keep everyone in their care safe and happy. Having lost a biological son to cerebral palsy, Reneé’s long-term goal is to spend as much time as possible with her family.

“We have learned how very fragile and short life can be,” she said.

Two important things can make being in the middle of the sandwich easier. Caretakers should check in to the Family and Medical Leave Act, a federal law that allows working people to take up to 12 unpaid weeks off without losing their jobs. Employers must continue to furnish medical insurance during the time off, if they’re already doing so.

People should also have an advance directive in place to document parents’ wishes on downsizing, moving to assisted living or a nursing home and what kind of measures should be taken as they near the end of life.

“You don’t have to do this alone,” McKenzie points out. “HopeWest has caregiver and grief support groups.”

Would McKenzie or the Peacocks give up their seemingly difficult duties? The short answer is no. The Peacocks pledge to take in children as long as there is such a need for stable homes, and McKenzie is committed to maintaining quality of life for herself and everyone around her.

It seems that being the sandwich filling is a pretty darned nice place to be.

Jan Weeks

Jan Weeks

Jan Weeks has been writing and dreaming since childhood. She’s worked as a public school teacher, heavy equipment operator, surgical ward secretary, waitress, administrative assistant and fly fishing guide. Her articles, short stories and essays have appeared in “Outdoor Life,” “Guideposts,” “Natural Health” and other markets. Her award-winning novels and short stories include “Season of Evil, Season of Dreams;” “The Centerville Code” and “Anna, Old.”
When she isn’t writing, she teaches writing workshops and edits both fiction and nonfiction manuscripts. She facilitates the Colorado West Writers’ Workshop and belongs to the Authors’ Guild. Visit her website for more information and links to her books and classes.
Jan Weeks

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