Making Sense of the ‘Sandwich Years’
With bleary eyes I saw my dad’s phone number on the screen of my phone as it rang early in the morning.
“Hello, Dad. How are things?”
“Well, I’m not sure.” This is how he now begins conversations when he needs help figuring something out. “Are we still on for the conference call?”
“What conference call, Dad?”
“The conference call with the suppliers. Jim, you and me are supposed to talk with the supplier.”
“Dad, there is no conference call and no supplier. It must have been a dream.”
My aging father is one of the smartest, sharpest men I have ever known. His engineering mind helped put men on the moon and his memory holds 13 generations of our family, including dates, places of residence, careers and accomplishments. His retirement and mobility issues, however, provide too much time for that active mind to sit around and think. As a result, he periodically needs to talk things out to regain perspective.
Later that same day, my schedule was interrupted by a call from one of my sons. He is grown now with a family of his own. I was excited to see his name on the screen. Since we are both busy, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity.
“Dad, do you have a few minutes? I need some advice.”
For the next hour we talked about family life and home buying. He was considering a career move and a home purchase and needed someone to help him evaluate his choices. He was old enough to have moved past the “I don’t need my parents” phase so I was becoming a trusted resource once again. I was honoured he asked and enjoyed the conversation—even if it meant losing another hour of productivity for the sake of dispensing advice.
Still that same day, I realized I needed to make a change in how I was doing things physically as my regular exercise routine was being interrupted by shoulder pain. I needed to decide if this was just a minor irritation, or something serious—and worthy of a doctor visit. I thought to myself, Who could help me diagnose how critical this is? The obvious choice was one of my sons, who just-so-happens to work in the strength and conditioning field. A thirty-minute conversation with him resulted in some new exercises that proved the pain was a preemptive message from my body to avoid injury.
I find myself in a phase of life I never thought to prepare for. I thought once my kids were grown, that’d be it—I’d be free! I assumed my parents would be healthy enough to be independent. I assumed my kids would be busy with their lives and determined to rely on their own wisdom. With few interruptions and lower expectations, Pam and I would be free for a while to just be “us” again. Instead, I find I have just as much responsibility—but the priorities are shifting.
My dad never talked about this season of life because his dad passed away when he was 17 and he stopped seeing his mom when he was in his thirties. He never took care of care of an aging parent, and as such, he had no training to give. He didn’t know what to expect and he didn’t know what to tell me about the kind of relationship we would have during his latter days.
A few verses have gained new focus for me as these important relationships are changing.
- Proverbs 17:6: “Children’s children are a crown to the aged, and parents are the pride of their children.”
- Matthew 23:11: “The greatest among you will be your servant.”
- Deuteronomy 5:16: “Honour your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you.”
- 1 Timothy 5:8: “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
In a Jesus-pleasing lifestyle, servanthood is the path to greatness. My natural inclination is to conclude I need to work hard for the benefit of others. While being a servant often involves that kind of sacrifice, the essence of serving is to do the bidding of the Master, no matter what He requests.
In this season of life, the main theme appears to be “honour your father and mother.” This means, “providing for them,” which in my case means helping them think through decisions and assisting them in establishing new routines to deal with the aging process. It also means being proud of my dad as he adjusts to having an active mind that attempts to direct an uncooperative body, which creates embarrassing moments and awkward situations. Serving in the season also means setting an example for my kids so they are better prepared for this transition in their life—when it’s my turn to be the aging parent.
I find myself asking, “What do I wish my dad (or someone else) had told me about preparing for this season of life?” I like the fact that I have a relationship with my parents and with my kids but my expectations of this time of my life are playing catch-up with my reality. Some of the advice I wish I had been given include:
- Focus on your legacy rather than the hassle. Aging parents are time-consuming. Unexpected calls from your kids are time-consuming. Living as an example to both generations can be inconvenient and intimidating. However, in the midst of all of it, God is building a legacy with an eternal reward.
- Prepare for your parents’ decline. When you talk with dad or mom:
- Discuss first. Sometimes all they need is a sounding board. They talk with you because they trust you but they don’t really need advice. They just need to think out loud.
- Remind second. Age is often accompanied by loss of memory or simply over-thinking. Your parents will increasingly need to be reminded of what they already know.
- Decide third. It is quite possible that as your parents age, some decisions will need to be made for them. Practice now having the compassion to grant them every freedom they can manage and the courage to make choices for them when it is necessary.
- Start the discussion early. It never occurred to me, or my dad, to talk about the kind of relationship we would have as he aged. It’s easier to have this conversation when your parents are healthy and lucid.
- Encourage your parents to tell the family story. Their words are indelible in their 70s and beyond. If they are willing to reveal how God has been at work throughout the generations and discuss the trends (both positive and negative) that impact your family, their later years may be their greatest time of influence. Their insight provides wisdom for every member of the family and adds dignity to their lives as they watch their bodies decline.
- Embrace humility. Serving is, by nature, a selfless act. Unexpected calls are inconvenient. Dispensing advice is a compliment at first but can become a burden. Parenting your parents (if they live long enough) is frustrating for everyone involved.
It will be worth all the effort when you hear your Heavenly Father say, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things…” (Matthew 25:23).
To hear more, check out our podcast interview with Bill Farrel here.