I’d been zipping around home, picking up toys, shoes, tiny baby socks. My father called, his voice small in my cellphone: “It’s cancer,” he said, describing a polyp, a cancerous growth. My steps dragged to a confused halt, and I sat down hard at the edge of my bed, my infant daughter asleep in her bassinet beside me.
By week’s end, my tiny family drove from Washington, D.C., to my parents’ house in Ohio. Mom explained that the tumor, which was the size of a golf ball, would not be cut out until after six weeks of chemotherapy and radiation. It remained nestled in her body as I’d once been, growing.
My daughter was still nursing, a small, mewing creature who screamed when held by anyone but me. How we love our mothers. She constantly wanted to be held. My mom needed me, too. I didn’t have enough arms for it all.
I was like many in this middling time of adulthood, trying to care for both children and ailing parents. I’ve heard it called the “sandwich generation,” but the implied squeeze of a sandwich never felt right. I felt pulled — by emotion, responsibility, need — more like cotton candy that thins into wisps as it spreads, until you are nearly holding air.
I’m among the oldest millennials, and among the first millennials with kids of their own. Because my parents had me when they were older, I’m facing their decline sooner than many of my peers. I sometimes see older family members juggling young adult children and sick parents and wish this stage could have waited a few extra years until I was done with my heaviest parenting load. And, of course, wishing my parents had been healthier longer for their own sake, not just mine. I’m not sure how many more years of life I presume would have prepared us for this stage.
On the whole, millennials waited to have children longer than generations before them, if they had them at all — often because of the daunting costs involved. This delay between coming of age and having children means I am probably one of the first in a large wave of us who will be juggling young kids and parental caretaking.
Years have passed since my mother’s cancer treatment and recovery, but her mobility faltered. She uses a walker now and doesn’t leave home often. I haven’t had both my parents in my home in a decade because it’s so hard for them to travel. I go to them, and it’s often not enough. My father has become my mother’s caretaker, reversing most of their lifelong responsibilities: He runs errands, cooks and cleans. It worked for a few years, with visits from my loud, growing family that all but overwhelm their quiet aging space. But now he’s dealing with respiratory issues of his own, and it’s hard for him to manage the house. They refuse to move, insisting they are independent and will remain so. I set them up with an evaluation for care at home, and my mother answered every question with “I’m independent,” thus disqualifying them from the program I believe they need.
I ask what happens if one of them falls, and there’s no good answer, because they don’t have the money for assisted living or whatever comes next. As my mother recently told me, “I never intended for you to become my retirement plan.”
The vast majority of millennials have boomer parents, who have an average of only $147,000 in retirement savings. Even though millennials generally are better at saving for retirement than their predecessors, according to the National Institute on Retirement Security, the majority of working Americans have no retirement savings at all. For all the ink spilled between the 2008 recession and now about millennials living at home, in the coming years, it’s millennials who will be helping to care for and support their parents as they age.
Here again, I feel too young for this. My kids are now school-age, and we’ve finally finished paying for child care (which averages $8,320 annually for American families). Like a little over a third of millennials who’ve been able to afford a house, we’re paying a mortgage. And we’re still paying off sizable student loans. Three-quarters of millennials carry some kind of debt, including student loans, credit cards, car loans or medical bills. While our parents may soon be on borrowed time, we’re in the hole for having borrowed everything else.
I don’t know yet how to spread it — myself, time, money — around. AARP estimated that caregivers invest a little more than $7,000 annually out of pocket in helping adult family members older than 50, and 1 in 6 reduces investments in their own retirement savings as a result of caregiving expenses. My parents eventually will need ongoing care. In 2017, according to AARP, the median annual cost of a nursing facility was $97,455 for a private room, $87,600 for a shared room or $45,000 for assisted living. From my research, I understand that once my parents put all their limited assets toward their care, Medicare and Medicaid will cover the rest — at least at facilities that accept Medicaid.
My Internet search history is filled with questions about financing nursing care, mixed with searches for what college costs for my kids will be in 10 years. My husband and I don’t want our children struggling, like we are, to dig out from under. I picture myself spread so thin, financially and emotionally, that eventually I’ll become transparent.
In the coming decade, millennials will struggle to help sick parents, raise kids and stitch together a work life with little or no promise of pensions or the social safety net we keep investing in with little faith that it will be there to support us. We’ll work until we die, and pray that something better is in store for the generations after us. I feel pessimistic, but know the struggle is harder for those a few years younger than me, low-income millennials and millennials of color who are still dealing with wage stagnation. For too many people, it’s going to be less a struggle to spread around a limited pot of resources and more a struggle to get anything into the pot.
Every misty-eyed grandparent I meet tells me I need to cling to these years with my children, because they’ll be over in a flash. At the same time, as my parents’ health continues to decline, I have a constant reminder of how fleeting their remaining years could be, too. I’m in the middle, grasping, trying to put time back into each of my hands.
Above all, I hate how much it is a numbers game, because my thoughts keep straying to the financial how of it all, when my greatest joy and obligation is actually caring for the people I love.
Last night, as I settled in to read to my kids at bedtime, my daughter, 6, handed me a homemade card. On it, she had drawn a picture of herself, arms spread wide, standing beneath a rainbow. Inside, she’d written in her choppy, phonetic way. She read it: “To Mommy. I love you. You are putting a lot of effort in taking care of us. I will help you. Do you want help?” She gave me a big hug and handed me a small toy purse of hers. Inside was a crumpled dollar bill and two quarters from her piggy bank. I started trying to hand it back. “Honey, I don’t need your money. Keep your money,” I said, to bright eyes that grew dark.
“I just want to help you. Let me help you.”
There was a sick weight in my gut. She’d absorbed our worries.
I sat there, mother to my kid, not wanting her money, not wanting her to feel as though she needed to fix things for me. Her $1.50 wasn’t a fraction of a fraction of enough — but her wanting to help was.
I hope what I have is enough.
I pressed my daughter’s cash into her tiny toy purse — help I didn’t ask for or want — and put it on my nightstand. “Thanks,” I told her, and she hugged me again, glad I wasn’t shoving her gift away. As I breathed in her hair, I considered how my parents must feel, and what tremendous grace life can teach us, in accepting whatever help we can, when we need it.