Friday, February 23, 2007

The Sandwich Generation: Good enough isn’t good enough anymore

For the past 20 years, I have taught about, written about, and thought I understood the Sandwich Generation experience: the adult children, still caring for children of their own, and also caring for aging parents.

Now, however, I do more than understand – I am living the role. Last night, standing in the checkout line at Target with all the essentials needed to set my mom up in her new retirement apartment, I realized that I had done the exact same thing just a few months ago with my eldest daughter, who was moving into her first apartment.

I had the same exact cart contents, too: shower curtain, laundry soap, kitchen essentials, sheets and towels.

As I rushed from unloading my mother’s purchases to pick up my youngest daughter at dance class – 15 minutes late . . . again – I thought, “I am living the Sandwich experience.”

I, and nearly every one of my friends and acquaintances.

Melanie has been sitting at her dying mother’s side for the past two weeks, leaving only to attend her high school daughter’s performances. She’s learned more about hospice, caregiving, and end of life choices in the past two weeks than I have in the past two decades.

Carol, a professional with a thriving private practice, has gradually reduced her work week to three days as her kids have completed college. Last week, Carol started working five days a week again to help cover the costs of two parents in need of high-level assisted living care.

My husband is taking tomorrow off work to accompany his parents to the doctor to learn how his 87 year old mother’s recently diagnosed cancer will be treated, and to support his 93 year old father in handling the news.

Clearly, we’re not alone. Both CBS and NBC are currently airing segments during their evening news broadcast that focus on this exact challenge which is facing millions of Americans today.

Many of our parents need care in assisted living communities, nursing homes and retirement centers. And you can bet your last dollar that every one of us will be picky, annoying, and demanding. We’ve grown up demanding more, and we’re accustomed to getting it.

A promotional announcement for the upcoming Assisted Living Federation of America conference featured a Disney University past executive speaking on the topic of “Learning from Disney, Where It's Not About Satisfaction.”

While Disney seeks loyalty by offering the best vacation experience imaginable, we in senior care have felt smugly successful if our clients are merely “satisfied”.

As my generation of self-centered Baby Boomers enters the long term care system – as advocates for our parents or as consumers ourselves – beware: We’ll be looking for an experience that far surpasses simply “satisfactory.”

Yesterday I interviewed a young woman for an office position. She told me of an earlier job she’d had in a care setting where she had been excited to help, but left after just three months.

“I was thrown right into the work with no training at all – just another employee to get me started,” she said. “I would have loved the job, but I couldn’t do it without training.”

No wonder our turnover rate is so high – over 70% annually, according to the most recent survey by the American Health Care Association (AHCA), as reported by the National Clearinghouse on the Direct Care Workforce.

This one thing I know: As a profession of senior care providers, we are not going to be ready to meet the high demands of my generation if we don’t aim higher.

Higher in our training of frontline staff.

Higher in our own expectations of happy customers.

Because for me – and for millions like me – it is no longer just a job; it’s personal.


ALFA Conference (May 15-17 in Dallas, TX):

Fred Lee, author of If Disney Ran Your Hospital (Amazon link)

Direct Care Turnover Statistics:

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