As she was growing up, Diane Steigerwald’s parents put a premium on decency.
“Kindness and tolerance to a diversity of cultures – that was the big emphasis,” she said, adding that her parents also didn’t want to see their children sitting on the sidelines of life. “Activism was big also. My parents were very committed to being involved.”
The Steigerwalds’ parental example of kindness and involvement have taken root in Diane, who acts as one of the primary caretakers for her mother, Marianne.
Marianne, 90, resides in the assisted living facilities at Alexian Village. She suffers from blindness and what is known as “medium dementia,” or the initial phase of Alzheimer’s disease.
It’s hard for Diane to see her mother struggle.
“The dementia gives her disorientation, so it’s harder for her to figure things out with her blindness. She is quite an intelligent person so she’s still very good at holding intellectual conversations, but it’s affected her memory and her orientation,” she said.
Diane’s father died in January 2011. Edward Steigerwald was the vice president of Steigerwald Construction Company and was also active at St. Jude the Apostle Church, Wauwatosa. His wife Marianne, a stay-at-home mother, was also involved at St. Jude, as well as in the League of Women Voters, both in the local chapter and statewide.
Diane calls herself a “caretaker child,” visiting her mother at Alexian Village daily, bringing Marianne to her own house on the weekends, and taking the lead on support and care for her.
Diane is a member of the “sandwich generation,” an umbrella term that refers to people of any age who are both a caretaker to their aging adult parents and also parents themselves. In Diane’s case her stepsons, Eric and Eli are ages 32 and 36, respectively, but that doesn’t mean parenthood has gotten any easier. In addition, Diane has been an English teacher at the Council for the Spanish Speaking in Milwaukee for more than 30 years.
The strain of family, job and caretaking led Diane to seek support in local groups, but found few that catered to her specific needs.
“I couldn’t quite find the right one,” she said. “None of them really fit.”
Then she heard about a different kind of group in the very place her mother calls home.
Diane is one of several participants in the new Sandwich Generation Support Group being held at Alexian Village.
Pamela Schlenvogt, director of marketing at Alexian Village, said that the group (which has been meeting since November 2011) was created to address a distinct need identified by members of the health care industry.
“When you’re helping adult parents and something at home isn’t being tended to and vice versa, you feel torn,” said Schlenvogt. “It’s important for people in this situation to relate. They think, ‘Am I the only one feeling this way?”
“It was really isolating before. We often feel as caregivers that we’re not doing enough,” she said.
The positive feedback of the participants has been the biggest marketing campaign for the group, though it also does rely on fliers and referrals from other home health care companies. Everyone is welcome, even those whose parents have no connection to Alexian Village or its outreach. Alexian chaplain Jessi Smedal, also the group coordinator, said that word of mouth is their main thrust when it comes to recruiting members.
“Every time we have another person (at the meeting), so it continues to grow,” she said.
The main emphasis of the group is to encourage fellowship among members of the Sandwich Generation.
“It’s the emotional support that they’re looking for, more than resources,” Smedal said. “Mainly the concerns focus on the aging parent and less on the growing children. It’s the unfamiliarity of the dynamics of an aging parent – that’s where there’s less support out there.”
Linda Paulson, director of business development at Alexian Village, likens the plight of a member of the Sandwich Generation to that of a working mother. Guilt, she said, is a huge stressor for both.
“You feel torn,” she said. “It’s hard to say, ‘I’ve got to stop.’ It’s hard to say, ‘I have to make time for myself.’”
“I think that my mother will always need more care, and some things I just have to place limits on,” Diane agreed. “By communing with other people we can understand each other and help take away that guilt feeling.”
Participants in the Sandwich Generation Support Group have formed a bond of shared experiences and emotions, Smedal said.
“It’s a beautiful, precious thing,” she said of the interpersonal support system. “I don’t come in with a specific topic or agenda. The group runs itself – there’s always a new person, so there’s introductions, and soon they’re all laughing, crying, supporting one another and I’m really just facilitating.”
She added that repeat attendance has been high, but new members always add something important.
Schlenvogt said the group is really the “embodiment” of the 800-year ministry of the Alexian Brothers, expressing a sentiment that Diane’s parents Marianne and Edward would likely applaud.
“It’s about dignity and respect for all, regardless of their situation or background,” she said, stressing that participating in the group is free of charge, making it available to everyone.
“It really helps my self-esteem,” said Diane, who plans on continuing her involvement with the group. “It just makes me know I’m not alone in this and that I’m connected to other people and other situations. It just feels so good to be able to relate.”