Po'boyMy sister and I were conferring recently on a matter involving our elderly parents when it dawned on us that we had become part of the “sandwich generation”. Yes, we agreed, we are most definitely squeezed in between – like turkey and avocado on whole wheat.

I recall first hearing this term in the 1980s. By definition, these are typically middle-age adult children, caring for aging parents as well as their own not-quite-grown-up kids.

With parents living longer, women starting families later, more women working than ever, families not living in the same cities, and young college grads having a harder time launching into independence, the challenges are many.

Now let’s add to this picture a child or two with special needs and panini might be a better way to describe it.

I recently went back to my hometown to help out with various matters involving our parents including their move out of our family home into an assisted living community, preparing said 100 year old house for rental, updating various legal documents, scheduling a surgery for mom, meeting with staff about dad’s melancholy and weight loss since his 90th birthday . . . the list was long.

My sister and her husband who live in the same city have the lion’s share of responsibility and they too have crazy busy lives. It was my turn to help out so I flew cross-country leaving autism behind in the capable hands of others. Seeing my parents, I thought about the year 1999 when two of their grandchildren were diagnosed with special needs.

My sister’s youngest was born with Down Syndrome a few months prior to my daughter’s autism diagnosis. One of the things someone told her to comfort her was, “just be glad it isn’t autism.” Oh my. I remember talking with our parents long-distance, realizing that it had hit them emotionally twice – once for themselves and once for us, their daughters, and what this would mean for our lives.

Over the years, they have been so supportive and understanding of the similar yet unique challenges we live with.  They don’t travel any longer but when they did, they jumped right in to help with Carrie. I remember once when mom and I went shopping, leaving Carrie with my dad and brother. When we got home, they looked a bit worse for the wear and commented on how difficult my job as parent was, particularly changing a poopy pull-up. Seems they did not know to tear the side panels away and instead one held her in the air while the other wrestled our whirling dervish daughter out. I still smile at that memory.

At Seattle Children’s Autism Center, we see every day the contribution grandparents make to the lives of the families we serve. Whether it’s accompanying them to appointments so that mom and dad can talk with the provider or babysitting so parents get a brief respite, grandparents are priceless. Some are even the primary caregivers for their grandchildren with autism.

The role reversal of helping one’s parents can be awkward, unsettling for all. The vibrant people who cared for me and launched me to independence now need our help with basics they once took for granted such as getting to appointments, shopping and other activities of daily living. It’s as difficult for them to ask for, and accept help, as it was when I was younger and in a hurry to be independent.

On the long flight back, it occurred to me that I want the same thing for my parents as I want for my kids. I want them to be happy and healthy and as independent as possible. With that in mind, I happily and dutifully take my place in the middle of the Vigo po’ boy.

Are you part of the sandwich generation? Are you a grandparent of a child with autism? Share your stories with others so that they know they are not alone.