A trio of speakers held a panel March 1 to discuss and share the personal challenges they have faced being primary caregivers for their families. Together, Rachelle Smith, professor of English, Carol Russell, professor of Early Childhood Development, and Fletcher Russell, husband of Carol Russell, touched on issues of gender, parenting and the struggle of being a part of the sandwich generation.
“Many of our students have family responsibilities, to take care of one another while going to school,” Smith said. “This is an issue not often discussed, but is very important in today’s world.”
The sandwich generation is a term referring to the broad group of adults who have assumed the role of primary caregiver of both their children and their aging parents, sandwiching them in between.
“If you live in a big extended family, and there’s nothing wrong with anybody, you’d be one of the luckiest families in the world,” Fletcher Russell said.
The challenges faced by the sandwich generation are great and require them to go great lengths to care for their parents.
“We built a home on land we owned for my parents because they did not want to be put in a nursing home,” Carol Russell said.
The benefit of being able to care for her parents and have their children spend time with their grandparents were extraordinary, according to Carol Russell.
As parents, Fletcher Russell served as the primary caregiver for their four daughters, choosing to stay at home while Carol Russell pursued teaching, something they said was not expected of their genders.
“I saw us as androgynous,” Carol Russell said. “I believe our caring for our daughters prepared us to better care for our parents.”
Smith faced similar challenges despite not having children of her own.
“I did raise my baby sister from age 13 while I was working on my undergraduate degree,” Smith said. “Now I bought a house and my middle sister, who is mentally disabled, lives along with me and my mother who is almost 80.”
There was pressure from her family to become a caregiver, said Smith, and she sees that as well in the wider culture.
“There’s a great deal of fear and anxiety about what responsibilities are expected of us by family and community,” Smith said. “A lot of that burden does tend to fall on women.”
It is Smith’s hope that these conversations can evolve from a gendered issue into a human issue.
According to Carol Russell, there are currently 37 million unpaid caregivers, and that number is expected to triple by 2050.