Sandwich Generation

Caroline Werner celebrates and honors those who are caring for both children and aging parents.

This is a shout out to both gay and heterosexual seniors who are in the so-called sandwich generation. Because of the longevity of our seniors, caregiving now extends beyond middle-aged or young adults caring for their aging parents. There is a lot written about the stress of heterosexual couples caring for both their parents and their children, but little about LGBTQ sandwich individuals or couples. I want to recognize our caregiving roles and the love we have for our families, whatever they look like.

Society may have an image that all LGBTQ people been disowned by our parents, and, of course, there’s little expectation that we’ll have children. In 2012, a seriously flawed study reported results regarding gay parenting where young respondents were in fact, for the most part, not raised by gays or lesbians. (See “A Faulty ‘Gay Parenting’ Study,” The New Yorker, June 12, 2012.) I can’t let the larger society use this type of erroneous research to discredit our healthy childrearing and extended family-caring.

I know some wonderful, healthy gay and lesbian senior parents and grandparents as well as heterosexual parents with adult LGBTQ children who are raising their children (the heterosexual parents’ grandchildren). These extended families are all supportive of each other. Yes, we can find stories of broken families all over the place—many are heterosexual, of course, because they’re the majority of the population. We know there are lots of losses in the lives of our LGBTQ population, but often we go on to make our own happy lives with our own extended “families of choice” who fill in the gaps in our lives.

In this season of love, I recognize and salute all the gay and lesbian individuals and couples who have been able to keep their families intact with their biological families as well as those who created happy, functional families of choice. I acknowledge, as well, the loving young families and individuals (hetero- and homosexual) who are there for their children as well as for their parents who are now seniors. I acknowledge those heterosexual family members who maintained the love for their senior parent who now recognizes that he or she is homosexual.

For some of us, just living as a gay/lesbian senior is monumental, given all the stressors we dealt with for years on a daily basis. Our biological families have not always given the positive validation and support that we, now LGBTQ seniors, deserve. Sometimes we feel like we’re living our lives all by ourselves. This is why our sandwich generation deserves special recognition!

As a lesbian senior myself with no children of my own and no close biological family, I am happy to be part of a larger community (my family of choice) where I feel supported and included. I love that I’ve been able to be instrumental in growing our community to include our seniors.

A two-day Intergenerational Mentoring and Civic Engagement workshop was held in November at OutReach, in collaboration with the Alliance for Children and Families and Family Service Madison, to successfully work with four youth ages 19–25 who self-identify as “at risk” and desire adult support with four LGBT seniors who are known to the community and who have the interest and time to be mentors. A trainer from the Intergenerational Center at Temple University in Chicago coached seniors on what it means to be a mentor, problem solving, discussing delicate issues, goal setting, and effective communication skills. Michael Wapoose, director of a local addictions clinic, concluded with inspirational readings, personal family insights, and a group meditation.

Pairs were established based on similar career interests or potentially similar social/life experiences. In a few months, the pairs meet again to discuss their progress and receive more guidance and coaching. Besides the support each pair receives from each other, the pairs will participate in a civic engagement project based on “It Gets Better,” producing a YouTube video.

A heterosexual program in Washington, D.C., United Planning Organization, which serves both youth and teens, reports that youth are happy with a “foster” grandparent who’s gentle, nurturing, and supportive. A “foster grandmother” who teaches the youth how to cook says the children are keeping her well. A “foster grandfather” says he’s happy to be able to take what he’s learned in life and pass it along—otherwise he’d be watching TV.

The stress of living can carry over into our childrearing, whether the family is gay or straight. As seniors age, they’ll require more attention from those they call family. In the meantime, our seniors can enjoy adding their contribution. It’s nice to see a new form of “extended” family rising out of the need to find a way to take care of each other, when—for lots of us—we’ve lost that biological extended family. This is a way for our healthy LGBTQ seniors to give back for our youth.

Let’s celebrate our families no matter what they look like and remind ourselves that the potential exists for us to create our own families of choice, even when we might otherwise feel that no one loves or understands us. It can “get better” when we’re able to reach out to each other, regardless of age.

Note: Another heterosexual “foster” grandparent program is available through SeniorCorp (or Retired Senior Volunteer Program [RSVP]). RSVP in Dane County is linked with the National Senior Service Corporation and the Corporation for National and Community Service, funded through the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act signed by President Obama in April 2009. One of its principles is to “support diverse organizations, including faith-based and other community organizations, minority colleges, and disability organizations.”

Caroline Werner has a Master’s degree in Social Work and was a case manager working with seniors in Dane County before retiring. Now she is the Volunteer Senior Program Coordinator for OutReach.