By Iva Thelen
As a child and an adult, I have enjoyed eating thousands of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. My Mom would make PB&Js for me as a school lunch or an afterschool snack. It was also my first attempt to make a meal on my own. When I was a kid, I knew I could always rely on the comfort and nourishment of a PB&J to help me get through the day.
A PB&J sandwich is a universally cherished food that is rarely appreciated for its symbolic meaning in life. Now in my 50s, I have come to realize the impactful symbolism of PB&Js in my own life as it relates to the complexity of being a member of the sandwich generation.
The “sandwich generation” is known as adults with at least one living parent, age 65 and over, and who has at least one child younger than 18 or financially supporting a grown child over the age of 18. This is the perfect description of my current life as I care for my mother, brother and my adult son—a very complex PB&J sandwich: sticky and salty; sweet and smooth; and comforting and protective—respectively, the peanut butter, the jelly, and the bread.
The fact remains that the true essence of a PB&J sandwich, placing peanut butter and jelly between two pieces of bread, lies in a practice meant to reinforce the hardships and rewards of being in the sandwich generation. As a caregiver, providing financial and emotional support to a parent, sibling and an adult child can be stressful. It has presented challenges and rewards I never dreamed I would experience in my lifetime.
The first ingredient in a PB &J is the peanut butter. Today, with aging parents and young adults attempting to achieve financial independence, middle-aged Americans are facing an increasing number of burdens and responsibilities that can be considered “sticky and salty” as they are pulled in a multitude of directions.
According to a new nationwide Pew Research Center survey conducted Nov. 28–Dec. 5, 2012 among 2,511 adults nationwide, nearly half of adults in their 40s and 50s have a parent that is 65 or older. In addition, they are either raising a young child or financially supporting a grown child over 18. And, about 15% of middle-aged adults provides financial support to their aging parent and child.
As a caregiver to a parent and adult child, we become bogged down in the day-to-day routines of their care and fail to realize that we are lacking the ability to create memories and moments with our loved ones. We yearn to find a way to create a more meaningful life for ourselves and our loved ones leading us to be sticky and salty about our situation.
On the other side of this sandwich generation are the adults who calmly and smoothly embrace and enjoy the sweetness of caring for their parent and child—The Jelly. It can be very challenging to enjoy the happy times with an aging parent or adult child when you are a caregiver. We sometimes fail to realize that time is the most valuable thing that we have with our parent or adult child. Instead of failing to realize the treasures we have in caregiving, we need to spread and balance the sweet and smooth jelly of time with the sticky and salty peanut butter in our lives.
Holding the delicious flavors of the sandwich generation together is the bread. As caregivers, adults offer emotional support to aging parents and grown children helping them navigate the trials and tribulations of life. The bread provides comfort and protection to keep the ingredients intact and unharmed.
As a member of the sandwich generation, your attitude and approach make a huge difference in handling challenging situations and obstacles which are a part of life. Trying to be positive when you’re dealing with dementia, incontinence, professors, or other serious issues can seem impossible. It is important to celebrate and focus on the good times, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem.
Instead, channel that energy into getting support from others. Reflect on the wonderful memories of learning and perfecting how to make a PB&J to figuratively help us simplify and navigate the challenging and rewarding experiences in our lives. Oftentimes, the best of life’s recipes are ones that motivate us to mix things up and try something new to make positive changes.