Forget the Sandwich Generation – I’m part of the ‘Filling Generation’

Clair Woodward
Clair Woodward: 'The lives of us Fillings are strange, especially if our parents are long gone' - Rii Schroer

I lost my mum and dad within months of each other, and don't have children to look after. It sounds like the ideal set-up – but, actually, it’s terribly isolating for a woman in her fifites

It’s an age thing. I send an email to a friend with a job they might be interested in and the reply is: “Sounds great, but I don’t think a full-time gig is on the agenda at the moment because of mum”. (‘Mum’ has advanced dementia). 

My Twitter feed is replete with stories along the lines of: “Mum’s been living with us for four years, but it’s got too much and we’re taking her to live in a nursing home today.”

If it’s not that, then it’s friends not being able to meet at the weekend as they’re taking their kids back to university after the holidays, or having them home from uni for a few days, or helping them to move into a flat. Or picking them up from the airport after a holiday.

It’s all classic Sandwich Generation stuff, with middle-aged folk caught between caring for ailing, elderly parents and children still in their teens or early twenties who still need them, and fuels those “Oh, I KNOW!” fiftysomething conversations.

Not for me though, as I have neither parents nor children. Sandwich Generation? I’m part of the Filling Generation.

I’m sure if you’re 55 and worrying about your son’s student loan and your dad’s dwindling pension funds to pay for his care, you might feel a nanosecond of jealousy, but the lives of us Fillings are strange, especially if our parents are long gone.

A conversation with my friend Cait recently made me realise how unusual this is. She had, in the previous fortnight, lost her uncle and mother-in-law within the space of two days, after both had suffered lengthy illnesses and were in their eighties. We then discussed other friends with parents who aren’t in the first flush of youth, either, and how we can support them.

Fred and Alice Woodward: 'I had to Google to check the exact year they died' Credit: Clair Woodward

“This must all be very strange for you,” she said. “After all, it’s been a long time since all this happened to you.” 

I hadn’t really thought about that before. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the death of both my parents within three months of each other; so long ago that I had to Google death certificates to check the exact year. Mum had cancer and died comparatively fast; Dad had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for several years and died messily from a burst ulcer while he was in a nursing home and his wife of over 40 years was in a hospice.

I was 29 when they died; they were both in their early seventies. I’d been worrying about it since I was seven and realised they were so much older than other people’s mums and dads. When the parents of my contemporaries were in their late teens and early twenties, they were twisting the night away in a Mecca ballroom; mine were fighting the Nazis in the Army and ATS. I spent most of my teenage years worrying about them dying, and trying not to upset them in case they dropped dead.

And then they did die, and boy, was than an experience. Looking back, there were moments when you had to laugh, like the face of the woman at the Co-op funeral directors which said “Not you again?” as my sister and I swung by to arrange our mother’s send-off, or the unknown drunks who turned up at my Dad’s funeral, clearly hoping their mournful faces would lead to an invite back to our house, a sausage roll and half a bottle of Bell’s. 

If I were to share these stories with friends now, many of them would probably nod their heads and smile, but trying to share them at the time with contemporaries whose parents – and in some cases, grandparents – were still hale and hearty at the time was impossible. Nobody knew what to say, especially as I’d become an orphan within the space of months. 

Clair Woodward's parents, Alice and Fred (with nephew Gerry): 'I spent most of my teenage years trying not to upset them in case they dropped dead' Credit: Clair Woodward

People literally crossed the road to avoid me. I’d come back from having a 10-minute weep in the office loos and emerge looking like I’d been smacked in the face with a frying pan, Reeves and Mortimer-style. Nobody would say a thing as it was beyond their comprehension. When you’re in your twenties, death really isn’t part of your world; even so, I was surprised by people’s reactions and the lack of support I felt I received.

It wasn’t until several years later that I really cracked and it all came flooding out. I was in my thirties then, and it seemed strange to still be processing a bereavement from years before and I still suspect some people thought I should be ‘over it’ by now.

And a quarter of a century on? I am ‘over it’. I can advise people about how to help their own ageing parents, but my experience of horrible illnesses in the elderly perhaps makes me sound a bit callous and slightly detatched. I want to tell people that their dad with dementia isn’t going to get better, that Power of Attorney is your friend, and that you should milk your parents for all their stories and ask them difficult questions before it’s too late. Been there, done that.

Not having my own family – and I would have liked to have had a family, not just ‘children’ – has made me miss that sense of continuity. Without other people to care for can be isolating all over again.

I’ve had a large part of 25 years of feeling envious when others are going home for Christmas, wondering what to get their dad for Father’s Day, or simply being on the phone to their mum, telling her about their day and sharing a laugh. I can only wonder how it would feel to receive a Mother’s Day card myself.

Losing your parents early in life affects you in lots of ways, the most devastating of which is just not having them around for support and a sense of security.  As poet Robert Frost wrote: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

Now I’m quite good at letting most things go and moving on, but also at being a bit too detached from things, because, hey, who knows how long things are going to last? And I can do it all on my own, because I have to.

There is an upside to this, though. I’ll never again have to deal with nursing homes that smell of cabbage and despair, or even very nice hospices full of caring professionals, or hospitals with nurses that break a terminal diagnosis out of the blue, or having to persuade someone to stop driving, or bathing a parent whose body is fading fast and almost unrecognisable.

Just don’t ask me if I’d swap it for 25 years of being loved.