Checking my email one morning last November, there was a message from my dad in New Zealand, informing me of the results of his latest medical tests. After successful surgery for lung cancer nine years ago, the disease had reared its ugly head again and this time there is little the doctors can do. The specialist predicts that my dad has around six or seven months left to live.
Having seen other foreign friends in Japan coping with a parental illness or bereavement, I knew the time would eventually come for me, too. However, this was small comfort while I sat gazing at my laptop, the words on the screen blurring together as my eyes filled with tears.
The “sandwich generation”
Raising kids in a foreign country and culture is challenging, and our own parent-child dynamic with “the folks back home” usually takes a backseat to the daily reality of parenting in Japan. Nevertheless, while our children are growing up here, our parents are growing older over there, which may result in being caught in the middle as the “sandwich generation.” Of course, this situation isn’t unique to foreign nationals in Japan—it’s a theme that is emerging in many developed countries.
I’ve sometimes used “sandwich” as an analogy for this situation. However, I only recently learned that “sandwich generation” is a bona fide term used by researchers. The phrase was actually coined back in 1981 by a social worker called Dorothy Miller. At the time, it referred to women in their 30s and 40s who were simultaneously caring for both young children and aging parents, but society is changing. Women are starting their families later, while seniors are living longer, so “sandwich generation” now usually means those in their 40s and 50s.
A 2013 U.S. survey showed that almost half of Americans in this age group have a parent over 65, while also financially supporting dependent children or young adult children. As for Japan, it’s no secret that the shrinking birth rate, increasing longevity and more young adults who seem content to remain single and live with mom and dad are causing the sandwich generation to feel pressure from every side.
Things can get complicated when part of your “familial sandwich” is an airplane ride away on the other side of the world. I am sure it is equally heartbreaking to deal with an ailing parent whether you’re a man or a woman, but it’s fair to say that women usually assume more responsibility for eldercare.
I’ve seen a number of my foreign female friends go through the process. This often means taking more frequent trips back home, and sometimes it morphs into an extended stay once a frail relative can no longer manage alone. Lives in Japan are put on hold, and the absence strains relationships with partners and kids — not to mention the damage it can do to a career and the financial cost of traveling back and forth.
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