The torment of trying to be a good granny AND a dutiful daughter

Top author Rosie Staal says women like her are in despair

  • 92-year-old mother Jean is beset by Alzheimer’s, breast cancer, hearing loss and poor sight 
  • Rosie longs to spend more time with grandsons Joe, 5 and Zach, 3, and her two-year-old granddaughter Poppy
  • Women over 60 make up nearly a third of all hospital admissions for anxiety – juggling caring for elderly parents, grandchildren and ageing or ill partners
  • Rosie worries she is also neglecting her husband David 

By Rosie Staal


On the train heading home to Dorset from London last week, I leaned my head against the cold window, closed my eyes and savoured a rare moment to draw breath.

After spending three days with my grandsons Joe, five, and Zach, three, I could still hear their joyful voices in my ears and feel their trusting little hands in mine.

Turning my back as they wave goodbye haunts me after every visit, causing a physical jolt to my heart.

Rosie’s loyalties are divided and she feels she can no longer stretch herself between family members

‘It rips me to shreds,’ I once told my daughter Claudia, an artist agent. ‘I know,’ she said, ‘me too.’ We cleared our throats and talked about something else. Claudia knows I would give anything to spend even more time with them than I already do: talking the boys through Tractors Of The World for the 100th time or easing her sleepless nights by helping with her insomniac toddler.

But I know I can’t become the involved granny I so long to be. Not to the boys or two-year-old Poppy, the daughter of my son Tom, a doctor.

Because two hours’ down the train line I have someone who needs me even more than they do and yet in ways that are almost the same: my 92-year-old mother Jean, beset by Alzheimer’s, breast cancer, hearing loss and poor sight.

Then, there is my beloved yet neglected husband, David. We met when both newly divorced while working at a newspaper and married 17 years ago when I was 47. When we’re apart I still feel an ache for his arms.

No wonder that on this all-too familiar train journey I find myself gripped by blinding fear and on the verge of tears; my responsibilities overwhelming me with a feeling of suffocating helplessness.

The people I love the most in my life need me so much. But I’m pulled taut like a piece of clingfilm between the lot of them. Tug me one way and I stretch just far enough, but there’s no slack and one more wrench, in whatever direction, will surely see me tear. I feel I’m doing everything, yet excelling at nothing.

I don’t doubt this feeling will be familiar to most 60-somethings; my situation is far from unique.

We have-it-all women have become the do-it-all women — torn between the needs of those both younger and older than us, and doing our best to prop up both.

Thanks to the ageing population, our ‘sandwich generation’ is the first unable to slip into a comfortable retirement — six million of us care for elderly relatives, while one in three working mothers rely on us to provide free childcare for our grandchildren.

Perhaps this explains recent figures showing women over 60 make up nearly a third of all hospital admissions for anxiety – struggling to juggle the emotional burden of caring for elderly parents, young grandchildren and ageing or ill partners, all at once.

When I worked full-time as a newspaper, then magazine editor, the pace of my life was hectic, but I wouldn’t have expected it to be anything else — in fact, I thrived on it.

Back then, I’d think nothing of my 30-mile drive to work after getting Claudia and Tom off to school, or working 12-hour days.

But at 64, with my career largely behind me, I thought that at last I’d be taking my foot off the pedal, focussing on my freelance work as a writer and voluntary work for our local Oxfam bookshop and community magazine.

I still buy books compulsively, hopeful that one day I’ll have time to sit and read them. I look at brochures for walking holidays, and fantasise about running a marathon, climbing Scafell Pike, growing more vegetables or discovering a blank page in the diary.

But instead, my life seems to be spent in transit – down to London each month to spend a few days with Joe and Zach; off to see Poppy at my son’s village home in the South Hams, Devon – in between the two days a week devoted to Mum, who lives 25 miles away.

A former PE instructor, Mum remains nimble and agile – she can bend and stretch and even run if the mood takes her.

She enjoyed a marriage to her soulmate Cyril, my dad, who she met when they were both stationed at Shoeburyness, Essex during the war.

They became engaged after only a fortnight and lived most of their married life in Cornwall, where Dad was a writer and an authority on antiques.

In 1996, three years after she was widowed, Mum moved to Salisbury to be nearer my sister and me.

She lived a wonderfully full life until Alzheimer’s slowed her down, but so far at least the veil of confusion it has cast over her protects her from the reality of what has befallen her, while still leaving her still sparkly and affectionate.

I’m stretched so thin I fear I don’t come up to scratch as a daughter, as a mother…or as a wife

I’m lucky, I know, not just that I still have my mum and that she is still able to show her love in many ways, but that I share her care with my big sister, Caroline. If I were truly alone, with all the responsibility on my shoulders, I wonder how I would cope.

But without Mum realising it, Caroline and I have put our lives on hold to ensure her comfort and to attend to her daily needs.

‘Would you have it any other way?’ I ask Caroline: ‘Of course not,’ she replies. ‘We’re able to do it, and we both know we wouldn’t be happy to hand her care over to anyone else.’

And perhaps this is the particular problem with being one of the sandwich generation: we’re too proud, too capable, to fail those who need us or ask for help.

As the first women who excelled in the workplace, we’ve come to accept that our work hasn’t ended, it has just changed. So we’ve rolled up our sleeves, and quietly got on with it, no matter the toll on ourselves.

Yet I have it easy, I know. There are so many in my position who are engaged in daily, sometimes also nightly, roll-your-sleeves-up care of dependent parents, offspring and spouses.

These amazing women — and they are usually women — are unsung saints. Take them out of the equation and we’d have a national crisis on our hands. Plus millions of bewildered sandwich generation care-givers wondering what to do first on their ‘When I’ve Got the Time’ list.

One of my 60-something friends, Sandra made time for herself by escaping to a tiny house near Lake Como when the stress of looking after her father became too much.

She would fly home every six weeks, trouble-shoot any problems, such as appointing replacement carers, and then fly back to her refuge.

For the first six months she felt supremely selfish, but she knew that if her father were compos mentis he would encourage her to follow her heart.

Then there’s Marnie, 55 who encouraged her mother Sue to move in with her and her husband Derek four years ago.

‘She was so miserable on her own after Dad died,’ Marnie said. ‘We thought it would be good for all the family to have her here with us.’

Both their daughters were away at university at the time. The arrangement worked well and Marnie’s mum settled happily in the annexe they created out of the attached double garage.

Then Zoe, the younger daughter, couldn’t get a job and moved back home. Sue took to nagging her granddaughter, complaining about thumping music and pointing out job vacancies in the newspaper: ‘You could at least take a job in a shop for a while,’ she’d say, on a daily basis.

The atmosphere in the house grew so bad that Zoe left home one day in a rage. The next Marnie and David knew, she was living with her boyfriend and his parents, several miles away.

‘I feel such a failure,’ Marnie says. ‘I’ve messed up both being a mother and being a daughter. I couldn’t have got it all more badly wrong.’

She echoes my own worries – spread too thinly to be entirely useful, I suspect I don’t come up to scratch in any of the daughter, mother, grandmother and wife stakes.


Most grandparents — 62 per cent — are not the oldest living generation in their family

I know no one is judging me, or Marnie, save ourselves. But this strange limbo land, inhabited by all us fillings in the sandwich, is unchartered territory. We are having to make our way, blind.

From one moment to the next I am playing shopkeeper to amuse Poppy, Darth Vader to entertain the boys and explaining to my poor, bewildered mother for the fifth time that it really is Friday and no, it isn’t Sunday.

To entertain Mum, I often take out my iPad and, heart bursting with pride, show her a video I’ve made of all the grandchildren playing together.

Mum looks up at me and smiles. She adores small children. ‘Are they anything to do with us?’ she asks.

With patience, and a huge sadness, I explain who is who.

Sometimes, names come into her mind easily, from who knows where, but the relationships throw her.

I dole out her tablets, encourage her to drink plenty of water with them, share our usual laugh when I call out, ‘Enjoy!’ as she knocks them back, and we get ourselves ready to go out for a walk.

All the time, during the hunt for shoes, the right jacket, the double-checking of the hanky in the pocket, and the interminable search for the door key, I am transported back to getting the little ones prepared for a trip to the playground.

Helping Mum on with her shoes, I could just as easily be coaxing Poppy into her favourite red sandals.

We eventually step outside. Mum slides her arm into mine and I touch her small hand. ‘Mind the kerb,’ I warn her. ‘Stop now and we’ll cross here.’

We head for the playground, an all too-frequent haunt of mine these days, where with Mum I sit and watch as she is endlessly charmed by all the activity.

With the grandchildren, there’s never a chance to sit. If I’m not pushing, I’m catching or holding or encouraging or praising or running or even, sometimes, joining in on a roundabout.

Its whirling giddiness precisely reflects my life — bearing the same responsibilities to two very different generations.

But in truth, while I may be stretched to breaking point, I know my great good fortune in having children, grandchildren and a mother in my life is not just a blessing — it is an immense privilege.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.