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

8 thoughts on “THE INDIAN ‘SANDWICH’ SITUATION

  1. You always educate me with new words/phrases/terms, my rockstar… this time ‘able-bodied’ is what I learnt. This is again a very intellectually packed article that made me thinking and must have provoked others as well. God bless you for such beautiful lessons, sis.

    Like

  2. Your articles are a great treat to read and learn. If vocabulary is one thing that I can draw from your article then the information it provides both on intellectual and emotional front is amazing. My grandfather (bother of my grandfather) himself lives in a old age care community after his wife passed away. His kids don’t live in India. I really feel for him, though the facilities he says he is receiving are great but what can fulfill the void of being away and alone from the loved ones. And on the other hand I know people in my circle who are juggling too many hats to take care of many at one time. That’s also taxing. Mid way needs to be worked out. And you explained them so well in your article that I don’t have to say further. Hugs and love to you my superwoman 🥰❤️.

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  3. It is absolutely true Pradita. The sandwich situation, often created by the patriarchal society, and sadly many times people just throw their kids on grandparents which is really unfair in my view. I have seen it. Also, true about sending parents in a home just because many want to get rid of. I read a book on the issue. But, also true we need to alter our perception on retirement houses. There are many Shravan Kumar too. Like you argued, there is no right or wrong way but how we see things with an open mind. I am so sorry about your illness and wish you strength as a person. You are one of the most incredible women I know and this strength always inspire.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks a lot Vishal. Really one can only do their best when faced with these conundrums. Its family after all. Be callous toward aged family is unconscionable, but at the same time it can take a toll on you to live your life just to serve another. Conundrums, conundrums everywhere and only one head to think 😁

      Liked by 1 person

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