THE INDIAN ‘SANDWICH’ SITUATION

At 65 years of age, Sandhya (name changed) is a busier woman after retirement than she was when she worked as a teacher. Before the lockdown, in her native Allahabad, she would care for her octogenarian in-laws. Every six months she would shuttle between one daughter based in Singapore, who can’t afford child-care for both her children while she works at a meagre salary, and the other six months she would spend with her son, caring for her granddaughter in Delhi, while both her son and daughter-in-law work in an MNC. Between all this shuttling from one country to another, her husband, at 70, having his own health issues, stayed at Allahabad because he couldn’t leave his aged parents alone at home.

Sometime into the lockdown in 2020, Sandhya’s in-laws passed away and Sandhya alone moved to Delhi because her son and his wife were having trouble taking care of their toddler in the absence of a nanny. Sandhya’s husband is still in Allahabad, left at the mercy of a few distant relatives, while Sandhya keeps shuttling between Allahabad, her maternal aunt in Meerut who is suffering from a terminal disease, and back to Delhi. All while she herself has high-blood pressure and runs the risk of being infected by the Coronavirus.

Sandhya is a classic example of a growing tribe of humans called the Sandwich Generation – caring for both their children as well as their parents.

When I was in school, as part of our Geography lessons, we were taught that the Indian population has a younger, thereby a more productive population. That was in 2001. The 2011 census shows that our aged population is growing and might double up by 2041[1]. That, coupled with the fact that we still have the highest youngest population in the world (below 14 years of age), means that our shrinking productive population (between 25-60) has to bear the burden of caring for both the children as well as the elderly.

Joint families often share the burden of caring for the young and the elderly in the family. With the advent of the nuclear family in India, the burden falls hard over the able-bodied, earning members. The closer you are, the more the expectation of helping out and besides, in a matter of family, these things come with a heap of obligations and feelings attached to the care involved.

The example above is one from my own family and I know several others, myself included, who balance their limited time and earnings between caring for both generations while they handle their own life issues. The lockdown has exacerbated the problem for many Indians who can’t even depend on house-helps and caretakers anymore.

My own experience in the last one year during the lockdown has taught me that I need to take care of myself better because I’m responsible for both my child’s as well as my aged mother-in-law’s care. I was recently hospitalized because of a gallstone that required immediate removal, and I have never felt the loneliness of my responsibilities more acutely than when I was lying on a hospital bed, worrying over who was going to take care of my daughter while my mother-in-law needed to go for her own dental operation. With my husband gone for work six months out of twelve, I am often the only ‘able-bodied’ person in my household. If I fall, everyone suffers. I’m sure many of you are in the same situation as me and they frequently find themselves stuck in a situation where they are unable to choose between sides.

The converse is also true. Parents being handed over grandchildren to care for while their children work. One neighbour complained to me how she missed her free weekends because her daughter brings over the children, just so she can have her own weekends free.    

India may have progressed in many ways but she is still ill-equipped to handle the rapid swell of the aged population. While our healthcare has become better, it isn’t affordable or accessible to everyone in the country. While families become smaller, parents are left to worry about where they should stay and who to depend on in the twilight of their lives. Old-age homes are not a feasible option for all families and most old-age homes in India are not well-equipped or maintained to cater to the elderly. But old-age homes also have a stigma working against them, that of thankless children kicking out their aged parents, which is why shifting parents to an old age home almost always raises eyebrows. But I have several people in my own circle who have had to shift their parents to an old-age home mostly because they work in different cities and don’t have the option to shift their parents in with them, or because the parents themselves refuse to join them. In the absence of senior citizen insurance, care and assistance schemes facilitated by the government, it is imperative for the children to care for their parents.

Often the sandwiched find themselves being forced to meet demand after demand from both ends, yet unable to meet their own needs. Lost career opportunities, missed social events, ignoring their own medical requirements, but mostly the lack of time for oneself leads to growing discord, apathy and a feeling of unhappiness in life. A candle burning at both ends and fast.

In such situations, no side is wrong or right. Children need our care and parents do too, rightly so because they have cared for us. More than medical and monetary aid, the elderly need emotional and palliative care. Add to that the Indian fixation with patriarchy means that while the able-bodied may earn money for the family, they don’t get to make decisions for the same. They feel like ATMs for both children and their parents. Like a friend who confided in me said,

“I never married so I could care for my widowed mother and Nani. Now I feel trapped in my own life because they think I only exist for them.”

In India, Shravan Kumar is the ideal child who sacrifices his life for his parents. In my opinion, the current generation is full of such Shravan Kumars who have given up living their own lives to maintain the lives of others.

Everyone finds their own path through this trying transition where you straddle both boats. What works for one family, may not work for you. But I’ll leave you with a few pointers that have worked for me while I work through my roles –

  • Wellness and Exercise: Because this generation has to care for two, maybe more generations, it’s imperative to care for your own body. When your body breaks down, no amount of love and care from family will set it right except your own capacity to recuperate.
  • Saying ‘this is my best’ is not Selfish: Everyone has limits and you are free to set your own. Children may not but adults should know when enough is enough. Remember, you are not there to baby your parents.
  • Give your Parents Space: Your parents are not tools. You wouldn’t want to be treated as such either. Let them live their lives while you live yours, regardless of whether you are in a joint or a nuclear family. Mutual care and respect are all everyone needs.
  • Take help: As much as it kills our ego, every once in a while, we must accept help from others.
  • Make Arrangements in Advance: You are already running against your own body-clock and your time is stretched thin. Plan your day and expenses and stick to those plans. Invest in your own future. Someday you will be in the same position as your parents and you may not have help that they have.
  • Me Time: Every once in a while, unwind, relax and find something that’s all about you and no one else. At the end of the day, you were born to live your own life. Become responsible for your own happiness.

[1] https://www.livemint.com/budget/economic-survey/eco-survey-warns-of-india-s-ageing-population-says-retirement-age-should-rise-1562248716749.html