Nancy Bergstein: A Role Model for the Sandwich Generation

Ten years ago if anyone had asked Nancy Bergstein what her world would be like once both of her daughters had left for college, she probably could not have imagined the satisfying and vibrant she leads today. Between working, volunteering, caring for her elderly mother and nurturing her daughters and husband, Nancy has also found a way to turn challenges into successes and incorporate her artistic interests into her life.

Nancy Bergstein headshot
Nancy Bergstein

The past couple of years have been a watershed time for Nancy’s family – her children went off to college, her mother moved into her home, her husband’s parents were ailing and job securities changed. Nancy has graciously faced what many of her peers are dealing with: being the sandwich generation.

children making fruit kabobs in a Yum101! cooking class
Children making fruit kabobs in a Yum101! cooking class

In addition, Nancy runs her own businesses – one teaching children theatre, cooking and photography and another designing “life story books.” Her “life story books” are another source of inspiration and an outlet for Nancy’s creativity. By helping others to synthesize their lives and photographs, Nancy garners a great feeling of accomplishment by creating books that tell their life stories. If all of that were not fulfilling enough, Nancy continues to direct many theatrical productions in the Sudbury and Wayland communities.

Nancy’s Parents Inspire Her Love of the Arts

Nancy and her parents and brother
Nancy with her parents and brother

Nancy’s parents Irene and Leon were very much in love, but were separated two days after they married because of wartime demands. Irene moved back into her parent’s home, longing to be with Leon and be the newlywed she was supposed to be. She spent two years waiting for her husband’s return. Finally he was back, they settled down outside of Boston and shortly thereafter Irene gave birth to Robert, then Nancy.

Nancy’s parents remained deeply in love throughout their years together. They shared a passion for music and theater. Irene was a fabulous artist and created a treasure trove of painted objects, a talent Nancy would also inherit. She says her “father’s lighthearted spirit made any room sparkle. He always had a smile on his face and a song in his heart. Dad was the inspiration behind my love of music and mom inspired my love of theater and art.” Nancy wasn’t encouraged to choose any of them professionally, nonetheless she found ways throughout the years to “bring joy to myself through creativity.”

Although Nancy received her bachelor’s degree in teaching and then her Masters degree in Health Education and Nutrition, her heart was always tugged in the direction of the arts. After several years of teaching in Duxbury, feeling isolated, Nancy left her job to pursue work in Boston. Taking that risk would prove to be one of life’s turning points for it was there that Nancy met her husband, Alan, who reminded her a lot of her father. After marrying and giving birth to two girls 17 months apart, Nancy wanted to restructure her priorities.

A Growing Family and Creative Pursuits

Nancy, Alan and their daughters Julie and Laura
Nancy and her family

Like many parents, Nancy hoped her girls would have all she herself had wished for growing up and more. She left her job in Boston to become a stay-at-home mom so she could devote herself to raising Laura and Julie. “I felt that helping my children find their way in life was one of the most important jobs I could do. I wanted to help them to know themselves well, to take pleasure in their relationships with friends and family, and very importantly, to be grounded so they could get through life’s ups and downs.” Nancy also encouraged her daughters to cultivate their passions while thinking realistically about their futures and what paths could be fulfilling for them.

Anything goes poster
Anything Goes poster, Curtis Middle School

“During that time, I stayed very involved in our schools and community. Being a teacher allows one to inspire and hopefully make a difference in a child’s future,” Nancy says. Nancy was eventually hired as the Musical Theatre Director of Sudbury’s middle school. She oversaw several successful productions, including Bye Bye Birdie, Guys and Dolls, and Anything Goes. Parents in the community still stop her to talk about the rewards that both the students and community reaped from those experiences.

Program cover from Temple Shir Tikva production of Fiddler on the Roof
Program cover from Temple Shir Tikva production

Nancy helmed several productions at her local synagogue as well. During the ten years that she directed shows, the cast, crew and number of musicians under her direction grew, as did the audience size. Nancy’s theatrical endeavors earned her a glowing reputation and brought the temple and community to life. She inspired people to become involved, excited, develop new friendships and to have fun. “I was fortunate in both venues to develop and share in the community spirit, to collaborate with talented, wonderful people, with whom to this day I share friendships. I couldn’t have done those shows without them.”

Becoming a Caregiver

Life became more challenging as the years went on. Nancy suddenly found herself caring for her ailing mother, who moved into her family’s home and has been there for more than two years. “Even though I wasn’t close with my mother when I was younger, taking into account all the factors, living with us seemed the appropriate choice at the time.” Nancy felt it would be better for her mother to be with her family at the end of her life than alone in a facility. Little did Nancy know that this decision would be another major turning point in her life. During this time her children left for college, her husband was out of work and then later began working out of state, and they lost both of his parents within several weeks of each other.

Nancy rose to the occasion by taking care of her mother whose health was deteriorating. She mourned the loss of Alan’s parents, adjusted to their children being away and continued to build and create her own businesses. She juggled all of this without bitterness or self-pity. Her resolve and resilience made it all seem easy and she served as a role model for her daughters and her friends. Nancy concentrated on positive things, grateful to have her beautiful family, wonderful friends and good health.

Nancy, her daughters and mother
Nancy with her daughters and mother

Nancy really had no idea what it would be like being an elderly person’s primary caregiver or how long she would be in that position. Although Nancy admits the past couple of years have been stressful, “like most difficult events in life, there have been many valuable lessons to learn. I certainly hadn’t envisioned that at 60-years-old I’d be living at home quietly with my husband and children away often, and me with my 90-year-old mother and a dog!

“Life is ten percent what happens to us and 90 percent how we handle it. Old age can be hard for some people. Watching it first hand on a daily basis has commanded more of me than I probably knew I could handle: the end of life psychology, defining different ailments, learning about medicines, talks of death and personal wishes, managing both the at-home and outside care, how insurances work, how various facilities work (i.e. hospice, rehab, nursing homes and hospitals) and the good and not-so-good doctors. I’ve learned about medical errors, patient rights, shopping for essentials, administering medications, some unpleasant cleaning tasks and educating my family to all of this, and on and on and on. In the past six months alone we’ve journeyed to the hospital five times, hospice twice, rehab twice and have been in and out of our home as well. As her caregiver, I felt sad, too, for all she’s been through and is still going through. I had to learn, however, to rise above caring for my mother and maintain my own happiness, probably one of the hardest but most important lessons a caregiver has to learn,” Nancy explains. She is quick to say that she knows she is not alone in facing these challenges, as many of her peers are in the same situation.

Caring for Herself While Caring for Others

Nancy acknowledges that most people do not know what it is like to be a daily caregiver. “I couldn’t possibly explain the roller coaster ride I’ve been on. Learning to support caregivers of the world is of the utmost importance because they are in a very draining situation, with many emotions running wild. Added to their job description, if it is a child/parent relationship, there can be many past, complicated emotions brought to the surface while dealing with current ones, such as anger, frustration, sadness and guilt.” In addition to processing all of the unforeseen emotions that have come along with caring for her mother, Nancy has become much more aware of the plight of the elderly in America. She feels there is much work and “new thinking our country needs to do regarding the elderly who are unfortunate enough to have lengthy, uncomfortable endings.”

Photography by Nancy Bergstein
Photography by Nancy Bergstein

By staying connected to friends and family, pursuing her own creative projects like photography and watching her own health, Nancy has been able to maintain a sense of balance throughout this challenging time. She also feels grateful just for the ‘extra’ time she has had with her mother. “Time,” she says, “that we might not have had otherwise to be at peace with each other. Perhaps having difficult times helped me to see the positives more clearly. I’ve gained a new kind of inner strength including how to be more giving, understanding, patient and selfless. I’m a bit mellower being humbled by seeing what life can bring. I have a new empathy for the elderly and for what their lives may be like. I know that having gotten this far, I will continue to face challenges head on.”

By realizing that she’s not alone in caring for two generations – older and younger – Nancy hopes that others will feel less alone as well. “No one is immune to hardships and the “busy-ness” of life. My story isn’t unusual but if one person feels more supported by reading it, I will feel good sharing some of the story of our family’s journey.”

If Nancy has learned anything it’s that “most things that happen during the day are small stuff not to be sweated. The bigger things that cause much personal pain require much inner strength to push through them and that capability lies within us. Our personal happiness comes from our inner selves and the people (and dogs!) we surround ourselves with.”

Her philosophy for life going forward is to try to live in the spirit of ‘Yes!’

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