Grandma, You Wanna Get High? Medicinal Marijuana and the Generation Gap

6 years ago

My husband and I are poster children for the Sandwich Generation. We are betwist and between two battling generational armies … and our white flags are already waving! Three years ago, we found ourselves living in a high-rise apartment with his grandmother (who was 100-years-old at that time), his mother and our five children. Yes, we chose this arrangement! We chose it because our elders needed us, and we wanted them near. It was a luxury and a unique opportunity for four generations to live under one roof and love, teach, and know each other.

In addition to living with a centurion, our children were able to get to know their grandmother who normally resides across the country. To add to this already rare situation, my own parents lived 30 minutes away from us in a house they shared with my grandmother. So my kids, at that time, had two of their great-grandmothers and all four of their grandparents living with them or nearby.

Doesn’t this seem like such the pretty picture of familial bliss? Well, not exactly. Though we had a generous apartment with room for everyone, multi-generational living was a serious challenge. When you’ve got a group of teenagers in the same household as your aging parents, you (the people sandwiched in between) reside in an often hostile and unpredictable land. And besides a good filing system, good doctor friends and plenty of medication, you also need to gather all things at your disposal that will strengthen your hold on your own sanity. All things!

To say that our teens and our parents and grandparents were worlds apart is the understatement of the century! The elders couldn’t fathom how youngsters can sit in one spot staring at the TV or computer screen for so many hours. Needless to say, the fashion of the young escaped their comprehension completely. The kids, on the other hand, were perplexed as to why their elders conversed so much about their bodily functions and why they obsessed about the mail and whether or not the postman would be on time each day.

And yet, in many ways, the behavior of our adolescents and our elders were oddly and eerily alike. In fact, one of the biggest challenges with these two generations is that on a fundamental level, their behaviors are so similar. I believe that they are similar because in a very real sense, these two age groups are both going through significant life transitions — the teens are experiencing the urge to gain independence and self-governance, while the elders are experiencing their decline, which often brings with it an unwanted loss of independence. So even though they are at two opposite ends of the spectrum, they are both fighting for their freedom, to gain it or keep it, and thus they can both be very self-focused, very rebellious and quite contrary.

The tough part comes when you, the managers in the middle, have to figure out how to address your child’s need for limits and guidance, and your parent’s need for limits and support. With this dichotomy in mind, the New York Times article about how medicinal marijuana is bridging generational gaps, speaks to the challenges and contradictions facing the "sandwich" generation. The article highlights adults who find common ground with their aging parents when their parents go against conventional wisdom and use marijuana to ease their pain and discomfort. Marijuana has never been a suggested treatment for anyone in our household. But plenty of our parent’s aliments, such as arthritis, glaucoma, appetite loss, neurologically-based chronic pain and dizziness, could be eased, some claim, with marijuana use. And I must admit that if I had come across some reliable information that marijuana could alleviate even a fraction of a loved one's chronic pain and discomfort, I'd have tried it.

As caregivers, you are often already on a medication merry-go-round. Doctors are so quick to prescribe a new drug for every ailment (and when you are in your eighties and nineties, we are talking about plenty of ailments). It's a crap shoot as to how all of those drugs are going to interact. Keeping up with what can be taken with what and which side effect can be attributed to which drug is a frustrating exercise in guess work and contradictory observation (yours versus theirs versus the doctor’s). So if the claims are true that marijuana has far less detrimental side effects than the alternatives, this alone is a huge factor in its favor. According to, the former U.S. Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders, M.D. has said:

The evidence is overwhelming that marijuana can relieve certain types of pain, nausea, vomiting and other symptoms caused by such illnesses as multiple sclerosis, cancer and AIDS -- or by the harsh drugs sometimes used to treat them. And it can do so with remarkable safety. Indeed, marijuana is less toxic than many of the drugs that physicians prescribe every day.

From my vantage point -- a good night's sleep, reduced blood pressure, a moments rest from chronic suffering -- these are all seemingly small results that mean so much for the suffering elderly and those of us caring for them. If a daily puff of MJ could bring any of those results, using it may very well be worth it, especially if you can get your hands on it legally.

However, such a choice for my husband and I would have created a conflict between the high priority of cure and comfort for the elders and the ever-present need to talk about and educate our teens about drug abuse. Here is a real conundrum. Unlike some of the folks in the NY Times article, I have no history or experience with marijuana and have been a staunch advocate for abstinence when it comes to illicit drugs in my household. We, as a family, do not even like to use over-the-counter medications unless absolutely necessary. I used to have bottles of unused antibiotics in my medicine cabinet that I bought with prescriptions to treat ear infections, but opted for good old-fashioned warm garlic oil instead. So I would have a difficult time justifying marijuana use to my kids, especially when I know that being able to say "grandma does it" is just the kind of wacky rationalization an adolescent would latch onto in a pinch! According to Andrea Barthwell, M.D., Former Deputy Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy :

... Children entering drug abuse treatment routinely report that they heard that 'pot is medicine' and, therefore, believed it to be good for them.

I can just imagine my kids coming home unexpectedly for lunch and finding grandma smoking a joint. It would rock their world in a way that would be hard to unrock, I think! I can picture my teens at a party, where someone breaks out a joint and offers it around. My previously cautious kids would have likely declined for fear that they might come home smelling like marijuana and be grounded for life. They might have even had the presence of mind to leave the party. Now, with a medicinally pothead grandmother, they might say -- if it's not bad for grandma, surely it can't hurt me, right? I have a frightful picture in my head of my daughter with a joint pinched between her fingers and her eyes in slits, taking in a long drag and while trying to hold the smoke in her virgin lungs, saying in a stunted voice, "Oh man, this is nothing ( cough, cough). My grandma smokes a bigger joint than this!"

Yeah … no. I can't have that. I guess I'd just have to opt for baking super-secret MJ brownies. My mother-in-law loves good chocolate!

Gina Carroll, author of 24 Things You Can Do with Social Media to Help Get Into College, also blogs at Think Act Parent and Tortured by Teenagers.

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