Japan Today

Coping with aging parents overseas: It's tough being in the 'sandwich generation'

By Louise George Kittaka

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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it’s a theme that is emerging in many developed countries.

Why only developed countries? Sorry, I just have to ask.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

The author isn't describing anything that generations of people haven't been through before.

The author clearly isn't claiming otherwise - "Sandwich generation" is just used to describe people taking care of children and elderly parents at the same time rather than a "generation" that was born in a particular time period. She notes that the phrase has been used for decades.

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I'm very sympathetic with your situation, Louise.

I'm an unusual case: of mixed heritage (Kanto-jin mother, American father, now deceased), a single father for the past 20 years of two boys (親権があった), and a son who has been taking care of his mother, who is over 90, for roughly 5 years now.

There's nothing that anyone can say to you, Louise, that will assuage those deepest human angers and anguishes and anxieties that you might have experienced. Be that as it may, never forget that you are "living in the thick of Life" and - perhaps, save soldiers actually battling at a front - meditations on lessons you can learn from the situation are a soothing ointment - and if you are a so-called "ex-pat," these meditations can deepen your understanding of Japan. Certainly, for the past 10 years or so, I feel that the kinds of experiences we have - helpless recipients of calls to care for the other - are the raw data from which we craft a metaphysics of life. The paradox is a profound gratitude that is born from these enormous strains.

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The worst thing that's ever happened to me was losing my father while living here. It's been nearly two years but I still feel guilt every day for not being able to care for him in his final weeks.

He was stricken with stage 4 pancreatic cancer out of nowhere. Something that is essentially unsurvivable. I took my (at the time) 4 year old and my husband to visit him while he was still healthy enough to interact with us. We stayed as long as we could but because of preschool and my husbands work we returned home. I wanted to be there to take care of him or just give him some familial peace before he passed away.

I didn't have anyone to watch my daughter for any longer than a week or so. I had to choose between being there for my father while he was dying, or attending his funeral to say goodbye. No good options. I chose the latter and I regret it every day of my life. If I had chosen to stay while he was on his death bead instead I'm sure I would have regretted that just as much. I wouldn't wish the guilt I feel every. single. day. for not being able to be there for him on my worst enemy.

I don't regret moving here with my husband, I really do love living here and it's been a great place to grow up (so far) for my daughter... but, as an expat some of the things you have to give up are astronomically painful. It's something everyone should think about even if you and your parents are fairly young because you never know when you have to face your own sacrifices.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I chose the latter and I regret it every day of my life.

I know this probably won't help but: don't.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Thoughts to all of us, who have been, or are in this situation. It is heartbreaking and difficult to get over.

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