The nightmare scenario went like this: I had an eight-year-old on the piano bench, five minutes into the lesson. My own daughter was at daycare. The assisted living/rehabilitation center/Alzheimer's facility called to tell me my mother had fallen/hit someone/had a stroke and that I needed to leave for the hospital right away. My husband would pick up our daughter, but what about the young student sitting on the bench?
Unfortunately, my nightmare scenario did occur. At the time, I had a family, a busy teaching schedule, and multiple other musical commitments. I also had sole responsibility for the care of my mother, who by that time had suffered two psychotic breaks and was living in an Alzheimer's facility.
Although, obviously, I was anxious, I had a bit of time before I had to meet the ambulance. I was able to reach the student's mother and everyone else who was scheduled that day. But a similar situation could happen again. Would I still be able to find everyone at the last minute?
Unfortunately, many music educators are in a similar situation, sandwiched between aging parents, young children, career, and— sometimes—adult children.
Not that we are alone. In January, the Pew Research Society released a study examining the lives of the "sandwich generation." It seems that demographics are catching up with many of us. "With an aging population and a generation of young adults struggling to achieve financial independence, the burdens and responsibilities of middle-aged Americans are increasing," the Pew report states.
"Nearly half (47%) of adults in their 40s and 50s have a parent age 65 or older and are either raising a young child or financially supporting a grown child (age 18 or older). And about one in seven middle-aged adults (15%) is providing financial support to both an aging parent and a child."1
Polly Ferraro, an independent piano teacher in DeSoto, Texas, is thinking about these diffi cult issues. Her parents, both 81, live in Saint Louis and remain independent; in fact, her father still works as an architect. But, of course, both her father and mother are getting older, and her mother has difficulty walking. The question of "what am I ever going to do about my parents" is on her mind.
"It's certainly there. You think about it," she says.
You certainly do. I was fortunate in some ways; my parents lived ten minutes away, and we had always been a close family. But, after my father died, my mother's already-precarious mental health deteriorated rapidly and dramatically.
I knew that having my mother live with us was out of the question. She was increasingly diffi cult to handle, she outweighed me, and, boy, was she ever strong. Further, we had a young child who needed our full attention, and I was teaching in my home. Taking Mom in would have meant complete family turmoil, a rotten childhood for our youngest, and the end of my piano studio.
But what to do? Those of us who are juggling care for two (or even three) generations know that options can be limited. With long-term illnesses, even people who are financially comfortable can run out of income. Then, when a relative is put into care, facilities are often inadequate or simply not appropriate, and, as time goes on, the patient often must move to a place with more intensive (and expensive) care. Multiple emergencies bludgeon the caregiver emotionally, physically, and often financially. Meanwhile, your family and your students need you.
As if things aren't difficult enough, travel can add to the caregiver's stress level. In many cases, relatives live across the country, or across the world. Camille Fu, who teaches piano in Plano, Texas, makes regular trips to Taipei, and Ferraro frequently flies to Saint Louis.
"Any holiday, any break you have, that's where you're going," Ferraro says.
Even with parents close by, balancing childcare, eldercare, and a career can be daunting. For many, however, maintaining teacher-student connections is both essential and gratifying, and there is nothing like music to take you away from your troubles.
A few years ago, Vicki Conway, Senior Lecturer in Music at the University of Texas at Tyler, was faced with her father's terminal cancer. Whenever she had the opportunity, she harnessed technology to maintain communication with her university students.
"I did miss a few scheduled classes; however, technology is so wonderful. I could put my students' assignments on Blackboard [education software] and keep them working when I did have to miss."
Conway adds, "My private students were great about rescheduling. I think that's one of the real benefits of piano teaching: you've got that flexibility if needed."
Fu also uses technology to her advantage. "You can use the phone for a group message, and they [the students and their families] see it immediately," she advises. "And parents have Facebook Messenger on their phones. That function is easier and faster than a phone call. If we have an emergency, we don't have time to deal with everyone."
Ferraro notes that, as always, communication is key. As she told her students' families in the fall, "You know, my parents are older. At some point, if I need to go, I'm going. What is the best way to get in touch with you?
Even if you are not yet a caregiver, preparation is essential. Here are
practical ideas to consider in advance of an emergency:
Keep your studio running
- Confirm that you have a cell number for every student and student family. If you foresee possible absences, let people know in advance. People understand these things. And if they don't, do you really want them in your life?
- Get your childcare backups in place as much as you can; the more support you have, the more you can teach. You probably already have several friends or relatives who would be willing to pick up your own children at school. Many of us independent teachers, however, like to be—how shall I put this?—independent. If, like me, you must face multiple emergencies, after-hours childcare centers can be extremely helpful. Identify an excellent facility and become a customer before you have to. If you are lucky, you will find a place with permanent staff members who get to know your children and want the best for them. I speak from experience: the drop-in childcare center near us was a godsend.
- Organize your technology. Text messages and messenger applications can be invaluable. In an emergency, remember to ask students and their families to respond to your messages; you don't want the additional worry of a seven-year-old left alone on your doorstep. If parents don't check messages frequently, enlist the kids' help in reminding them to keep on top of things; most children would love to help you.
- If you have a Facebook page or studio website, remind your students and their parents to check it frequently (of course this means you have to keep your page updated).
- Consider distance teaching, either through an application such as Skype or simply through short video or audio files, which can easily be sent via e-mail or text.
- Think about hiring a substitute. No, it's not ideal to do so. It's also not ideal to lose your business. Once again, advance planning is essential, and you might even ask colleagues to teach group lessons at your studio or arrange for your students to visit another teacher's group classes.
- Invite a guest artist to your studio. If your students are preparing for auditions, it is always good pedagogy to have a master class, and a group class of any sort lightens up your teaching schedule while enhancing your students' experiences.
- Prioritize your students. Just for now. See the ones who have immediate musical needs, and postpone other lessons for a week or two. You'll reschedule the lessons when you can.
Keep your sanity
- Do your best to find out your relatives' long-term care wishes long before difficult decisions must be made. If you have a home studio, it is especially important to plan ahead as much as possible.
- Authorize at least one trusted person to make decisions about your relative if you are unavailable.
- Remember to investigate community and professional resources, including your local library.
- Take the occasional break. And, if you can, keep some semblance of a sense of humor—you need it.
The only good thing about being sandwiched in 2013 is that you're not alone. Here is a sampling of helpful internet resources:
- Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research Foundation ( alzinfo.org )
- National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health: "Caring for the Caregiver" (cancer.gov/ cancertopics/coping/ caring-for-the-caregiver/)
- American Heart Association: "Top 10 Tips to Refresh Yourself " (heart.org/ HEARTORG/Caregiver/Caregiver_ UCM_ 001103_SubHomePage.jsp)
1 Parker, K., & Patten, E. (2013, January 30). "The Sandwich Generation: Rising Financial Burdens for Middle-Class Families." In Pew Research Social and Demographic Trends. Retrieved from http://www.pewsocialtrends.org /2013/01/30/the-sandwichgeneration/.