Boomer Sandwich

Remember the “Dagwood”? According to Wikipedia, the Dagwood Sandwich is a tall, multi-layered sandwich made up of a wide variety of meats,The Dagwood Sandwich cheeses, and condiments. It was named after Dagwood Bumstead, a character in the comic strip Blondie. Dagwood is a good name for the Boomer Sandwich – it’s multi-layered and I bet no two people make it exactly the same way.

The resurgence in multi-generational living is due in large part to the Boomer Sandwich. No two are alike but there are some common ingredients. Take a typical Boomer couple with two sets of aging parents, at least one child and careers approaching the retirement zone. Life is going according to plan and then? Your college educated child can’t find a job and wants to move back home. “It’s just temporary, Mom” he says. Next? One of your parents needs assistance and can no longer live independently in their own home. Now what? How does this Boomer Sandwich affect your decisions about how and where you will live?

Let me tell you about one sandwich I’ll call the “Madeline”. What impresses me most about Madeline is her attitude. We’ve all met the martyr who will bend your ear about how put-upon they are and how wonderful they are for taking care of everyone else. Well, Madeline is no martyr and she has a full plate. First, Madeline and her husband Mark have a teenage child with Cerebral Palsy. They live in a wonderful home in a great neighborhood and they have no intention of moving but the biggest challenge is the steps. From the street, it’s 5 steps to a landing and another 5 steps to the porch. Up another step and you’re in the front door with access to the first floor living room, dining room and kitchen. Not bad if you’re able, but very challenging for Madeline and Dave. Madeline gets Dave into the house in a kind of dance that leaves her exhausted and him chatty. Need to use the bathroom? Dave scoots up the 14 steps backwards to the second floor, site of the only bathroom, but lately he needs some help. Dave is a house walker who gets around with the help of furniture and anything he can grab onto. He uses a wheelchair, sticks or a walker, and none of them go up stairs. Dave is still growing and with every spurt he has to relearn how to do everything.

While they were talking one evening, Mark was online searching for ideas on “home modifications”, “accessibility”, and similar terms and found Gotcha Covered, our remodeling company that specializes in Universal Design. He called Bill to schedule a “Home Evaluation”. Bill uses an evaluation process that includes a systematic review of each aspect of the home and provides a thorough analysis of how to improve the home’s livability. For example, he evaluates exterior and interior doorways, hallways, staircases, kitchen and bathrooms and ends with recommended modifications.

At the first meeting, Mark asked Bill “What can we do around here that will make things easier for Madeline and Dave?” They toured the house together and clearly it was going to be a challenge. Living in town where lot sizes are small and homes are close together, there is only so much room to work with. Inside, the home has wonderful hardwood floors, quality trim and detail, but there is no first floor bathroom and no room for a first floor bedroom.

As they were going over some ideas like putting a bathroom behind the kitchen, the lack of space kept interfering. That space was not even heated, but Bill thought it was worth looking into. The main goal was to eliminate the need to get Dave up and down the steps. Ideally, building an addition that could be completely accessible would be the best solution. That’s when the subject of Mark’s mother came up in the conversation.

Pearl still lived in the home where Mark was raised. Now in her 80s, Pearl was beginning to have difficulty getting around. “What if,” Mark thought out loud, “Pearl were to sell her home, move in with us and help us finance an addition?” Mark continued, “Oh, never mind; she won’t go for it, she won’t want to move.”

By the end of that discussion, all agreed that there was no real room to put a bathroom on first floor. To add a first floor bathroom, we needed a large enough space and that meant an addition. Given the location and the challenges of the lot size, designing and building an addition that was accessible and attractive, functional and comfortable for the whole family was going to be costly.

After Bill left, Mark and Madeline talked to Pearl about their idea and to their surprise she agreed. In fact she was enthusiastic and glad to be part of the solution. With Pearl’s participation, it would now be possible to build a full blown first floor addition. Bill got the call; Mark said “we’re ready to go, Pearl is in”!

Bill sat down at his computer to begin the design while telling me all about what had happened and how the project had gone from interim fixes to a full blown addition utilizing all of the principles of Universal Design that we espouse. While Bill worked, I couldn’t help but marvel at how quickly this family had come to work together and make this project possible. I heard no whining, no martyrdom, no hint of “aren’t I wonderful; see how I take care of my family”. What I did hear was “doing what needs doing” and “OK, let’s get it done”. Maybe Madeline didn’t understand what she was getting into. It’s not just the upheaval associated with a major addition and renovation, but her mother-in-law was going to move in with them and her son would probably be living with them for a long time. Most people would be stressed or playing the martyr; Madeline was just “doing what has to be done”.

This is only one of the stories I hear on a daily basis. I hope to get it all in a book with a chapter for the “Madeline”, the “Maureen” and the “Mac”, all variations on the Boomer Sandwich from some pretty great Boomers.