Middle Age: Caught in the Middle

The helplessness of elders and the curbing freedom of youngsters is often talked-about. But it is forgotten that the middle generation is also suffering, caught in the middle between two generations they love

There was an age when three or four generations alive and kicking at the same time was seen as a blessing. But, from the cases I see everyday in my practice now, it is being perceived more as a curse. Great grandparents in their 70s and 80s, grandparents in their 50s and 60s, parents in their 30s and 40s and children in their teens, all existing at the same time, is a source of great turmoil for many, and those who are worst hit are the ones caught in the middle.

Medical science has advanced tremendously. It may have helped increase longevity of man, but he has unfortunately not grown wiser with age. Psychological maturity is not always increasing in proportion to biological maturity; sometimes, it is the reverse, with more rigidity setting in with age. This is probably why those seeing their parents and grandparents become increasingly insecure, dependent and rigid, are seeking help from personal growth programmes and spiritual pursuits. They are hoping to enable themselves to age gracefully and find solace.

Madhavi, a teacher, was living with her in-laws, her teenage daughter, her married son with his wife in their 20s and a newly-born grandchild. Her parents lived in the same city too. She was referred to me for depression.

Her mother-in-law refused to give up interfering in running the house; her son and daughter-in-law expected Madhavi to baby-sit their child on weekends, so they could spend time with each other; her daughter had "dating" issues, her husband had just retired from his job and was restless at home. She herself was going through menopause. She also had to nurse her father after his chemotherapy cycles as her mother was suffering from arthritis and she was the only daughter in the same city. She was physically and emotionally stretched. She would face anxiety attacks at the school where she taught, and her performance started deteriorating.

Madhavi is not alone in this situation. There are so many middle-aged people suffering from stress-related disorders, as they find themselves "stretched" between trying to understand and deal with the teenage enigma, helping their older children settle, dealing with their own mid-life health and career issues, and catering to their parents' and in-laws' demands.

Prakash came to me with a moral dilemma. He had two teenage children - a son preparing for the IIT entrance exams and daughter preparing for her CBSE. He wanted to move into a bigger house with his parents and children so that both children had enough space and privacy to study. His parents were adamant that they would not move out as they were attached to the area, and insisted that he continue to live there. He was told that if he moved out, he would be abandoning his parents who raised him, showing how ungrateful he was. On the other hand, the need of his children was also real and urgent.

The rigidity of his parents and his children's needs made him extremely stressed. As he took an appointment with me, I observed the lines of tension on his face and feared for his health. A day later, the day of his first formal appointment with me, he suffered a massive heart attack and was rushed to the ICCU.

Villains or victims?

More often than not, the middle generation, also known as the sandwiched generation, is painted as the villain, by parents and children. However, they are not villains but victims of circumstances. Both the older and younger generation look to them to fulfil their demands, with no thought of how much they are getting exhausted.

Films and the media play up the victimisation of the older generation, which I agree is very much an issue that needs to be addressed. There is also much talk about the lack of understanding by parents in a teenager's life, and teenage depression is also definitely an issue. But in the process, the many quiet cases of the victimisation of the middle generation remain unrecorded.

Rohini was a working woman whose income, added to her husband's income, gave her family a comfortable life. Her parents would often throw a guilt trip down her throat about not being there for them and not letting them stay with her. Her small house could not accommodate two more individuals. She also could not make time away from her job to be with them as often as they wanted her to, as they stayed on the other side of town. When she came up with the idea of shifting them to a senior citizens' home near her house so that she could visit them more often to look after their needs, she was accused of committing the gravest crime. Her parents saw themselves as victims, and her uncles and aunts made her feel like a sinner. She was guilt-ridden when she came to me.

Constraints of physical space and financial resources, along with the limitations of emotional and physical energy, leave the middle generation with little left for themselves. Though middle-aged men and women are both subjected to this problem, there are more cases of women suffering. This is because often, men confine themselves to the limited role of the "provider", and leave the rest to the wife. She is left juggling her roles as mother, daughter-in-law, wife, daughter, home-maker, maybe also working to bring in more money, and loses herself somewhere along the line. She is not only caught in the middle but crushed too.

Selfishness or self-love?

While working hard to create awareness for the physical and mental health of seniors and juniors, more attention should also be paid to the plight of the sandwiched generation. Experienced relationship counsellors and family therapists should help generations see themselves and other generations objectively.

The sandwiched generation needs to be helped to live their independent life "guilt-free", if they have genuinely done their best for their children and their aging parents. However, we have been taught to feel guilty if we put ourselves first and take time to nurture ourselves. Self-love has been termed as selfishness by society. Selflessness and sacrifice has often been wrongly glorified.

Selfishness has been defined in the words of Oscar Wilde - "It is not living as one wishes to live, but it is asking others to live as one wishes to live."

With this definition, the sandwiched generation can live with self-love without seeing it as being selfish; as it is only by loving yourself that you can truly love others. So, next time you feel guilty for being loving and giving to yourself, remember the safety instructions given to you by all airline companies before the plane takes off; "When there is a fluctuation of air pressure in the plane, the oxygen masks in the compartment above your head will automatically come down in front of you; first firmly secure your own mask on your mouth and breathe normally; and only then help a child or another passenger."

Tips for the Elders

  • Avoid being dependent on your children in any manner.
  • While you are still active and earning, save and invest adequately for your retirement days. Do not give away this corpus of savings to children. Help children financially only with surplus savings.
  • Create a parallel source of income so that you make some money even after retirement.
  • Encourage children to shift into their own homes after marriage. Suggest and help them to take housing loans.
  • Never give your lifetime savings [such as provident fund] to your children to start a business or buy a house.
  • Do all your personal chores yourself. Besides making you independent, this will also help you to keep fit and active.
  • Let children take care of their own children and strictly avoid interfering in matters related to grandchildren.

Tips for the Young

  • Do not drag your grandparents into any issue between you and your parents.
  • Keep yourself away from any issues between your parents and grandparents.
  • Avoid putting undue and unreasonable demands on parents. Take care of your own chores and be helpful whenever possible.
  • Enjoy your freedom with responsibility and respect the space of your elders.
  • Live within your means and strive to become financially independent as soon as possible.
  • Do not insist that your parents dip into their personal savings to provide for your luxuries.
  • Shift into a separate place after marriage by buying a house through loans.
  • Take loans from financial institutions and strictly avoid borrowing from your parents.

Tips for the Middle Generation

  • Allow your old parents to live separately in their own house. Encourage your children, once married, to shift into their own houses; make sure you live separately.
  • Attend to the needs of your parents whenever possible. Be frank in declining the demand if it is difficult and beyond your capacity.
  • Avoid giving false assurances and promises. Be practical and truthful. Strictly avoid pampering your children or parents.
  • Manage issues with your growing children either independently or with the help of professional counsellors. Do not bring in your parents as mediators or counsellors.
  • Never stretch yourself beyond your physical, psychological and financial capacity.
  • Seek help from experienced counsellors for family therapy.

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Minnu Bhonsle
Minnu R Bhonsle, PhD, is a Mumbai-based consulting psychotherapist and counsellor. She conducts training programmes in Personal Counselling [Client-centred Therapy] and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, and also workshops in Stress Management, Art of Listening, Couple Therapy, and Communication Skills. Minnu has co-authored the book, The Ultimate Sex Education Guide along with Dr Rajan Bhonsle.

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