Sunday 23 November 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

A few years ago I found myself in conversation with a colleague at my previous school but one. She was older than me with grown-up children of her own and inevitably our chat turned to parenting. She was doing most of the talking and I was doing most of the listening as I thought that someone of her experience would have some handy tips for a parent like me, about to embark on the “terrible teenage years” with my son. There was one comment she made, however, that left me questioning some of the strategies my wife and I had deployed when bringing our children up.

My colleague said in all seriousness that she didn’t expect her children to put her in a care home when she reached her twilight years. She wanted to be looked after by her offspring in the comfort of their homes (I imagine that she meant that her children would take turns looking after their mum). I remember being taken aback by her confident and casual manner. It was almost as if she had already arranged her care plans for her elderly years. When I asked her what her children thought about her decision she did not hesitate to answer: “That’s the deal and they know it. I looked after them when they were little. I wiped their bottoms, changed their nappies, I fed them and took them to the doctor’s when they were ill. I expect them to reciprocate when I am unable to fend for myself.”

A question mark on her face: Who is going to look after me?

So, the answer in short was, her children had not been consulted. It was the sort of agreement that tacitly implies that if you are a child you pay back to your parents whatever they invested in you in the first place. At this point I have to add that my ex-colleague was originally from the subcontinent, probably India, although I’m not totally sure. This element is important when it comes to analysing family dynamics. I have noticed, as I’m sure others have, especially those based in the British Isles that families from traditional backgrounds function differently to those in which both parents were born here. My ex-workmate was a sari-wearing, proud Asian mother. We always used to have good conversations in the staff room but it was only on this occasion and in future interactions thereafter that I noticed her mentioning these expectations she had so well described before. Moreover, it transpired through our regular chats that this was the standard in her culture; not just respect for the elders, but also to care for them.

This conversation left me with a puzzle. Have my wife and I been doing the wrong thing? I asked myself. Maybe we should have thought of our mature years and ensured that our children got the message that they were meant to look after us (not at the same time, I hope) because we have done the same all these years for them. Perhaps we ought to treat this period of our children’s lives like a pension fund and put our savings in them. Yet, there is another part of me that says that this is unfair. Please, do not get me wrong, I still think that respect for our elders is paramount and that no matter how ill, infirm or mentally unstable an older person may be, she or he deserves the most humane treatment there is available. At the same time, foisting responsibility on to the young shoulders of our offspring for our well-being might backfire in the long term. I can imagine all kinds of situations arising; none of them conducive to a conscious effort on the part of the young person to soothe and cushion the effects of the passing of life on an older member of society. This is one of those scenarios where coercion, soft or hard, does not work.

It is different in more traditional families, especially those in Africa and Asia. I think that my neck of the woods, Latin America, has for many years been under the influence of western lifestyles and this has had a knock-on effect on family dynamics. Still, there are remnants of this palliative care in some countries, but on the whole, we tend to send our elderly away to care homes to be fed and dressed by strangers. Professionals, yes, but still strangers.

Part of this, I think, lies in the fact that it is less difficult to develop an emotional and affectionate bond for a new-born. With babies, our natural parental instinct kicks in immediately, even from the time they are still in mummy’s belly. There is also the element of a fully conscious individual, us, caring for one who is not fully aware of all the attention she is getting, nor who is giving this attention and what it means. Fast-forward many decades hence and the situation you come across is the following: two fully conscious individuals, one of whom is the aforementioned parent, but now rendered almost powerless by that phenomenon called Time. I am mainly referring to those cases where an older person cannot look after themselves. There are many cases of perfectly independent elderly citizens who lead a healthy, active life well beyond their retirement age. I say to them: “I hope to join your club when I reach your age”. But the truth is that cases of vulnerable older people left to their own devices outnumber those who are self-sufficient. As I mentioned before, the dilemma is the erstwhile child getting to grips with the fact that it is their mum or dad who relies on them now. This situation is further complicated if the relationship between progenitor and offspring has been damaged at some point, or whether one of the parents was an authoritarian figure in the past and this caused frictions in the family unit. The dynamics between grown-up child and aging parent will change drastically with unforeseen consequences for both camps. Furthermore, witnessing the slow and unavoidable physical and mental deterioration of people who until recently were of sound mind and body, might trigger off thoughts of mortality in these grown-up, but still young, children. I would not be surprised if a form of (self) denial were to make its presence known in their attitudes to their parents and other elderly people.

At this point I return to my previous question: is it fair to treat children as an investment or as a pension fund into which we put all our savings hoping to make use of these savings when we hit retirement age? Whilst in more traditional societies this might be the norm, the truth of the matter is that our world is changing fast. A shrinking labour market means that sometimes you will find your dream job not in the vicinity of the house where you grew up with your mum and dad, but thousands of miles away, in another country. Globalisation means that intercultural unions are becoming the norm with the usual relocation. Also, the concept of the nuclear family as we used to know it has been turned on its head – for the better, in my humble opinion – which means that nowadays it is mum and dad, only mum, only dad, mum and mum, dad and dad, or grandparents. All this has a knock-on effect on the way we look after our elders when they can't fend for themselves.

In an ideal world, I would like there to be the option for children of fragile, elderly parents to ensure that the latter can spend the rest of their lives in total comfort in a care home. Or, if the children so wish, the choice to look after their parents in their own house with some support from the government. To me it is giving back rather than paying back (I don’t like that phrase in the context of parenting) to these people, the majority of whom have made a valuable contribution to society.

This is a complex issue, and one that I have only begun to make sense of in recent years as my children keep growing up and I keep getting older. Unconditional love for my little ones means that I ought not to be thinking of any obligation on their part to change my clothes, bathe me or feed me if they don’t want to. At the same time, there is another part of me that would appreciate being cared for by the people to whom I gave life. Or at least not being tossed in the scrapheap as it has happened to others. Now that I have found my voice on this subject, I would love to run into my ex-colleague and ask her how her plans for her twilight years are shaping up. Something tells me that her answer will not have changed.

© 2014

Photo taken from Lens Snippets

Next Post: “Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts”, to be published on Tuesday 25th November at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. food for thought, brother.

    my daughter recently laid this one on me,
    "i have always thought that i will be caring for you after you retire."



    i have always thought that i would retire, travel,
    and die. skip right over the messy stuff.

    especially skip over messy stuff involving witnesses.

    now she has me thinking. my daughter's idea of a holiday,
    as you Brits call it, is to sleep in a hammock at
    a great height from the rainforest floor, somewhere in
    South America.

    anything that puts a great distance between me and the ground better be an airplane, not for long, and with plenty of legroom.

    my own Mom, eighty-seven going on a hundred, spends her weekdays alternating between doctor appointments and gossiping with her friends at the local mall, her week-nights at home watching soap operas, and Sundays she drives (!) to the casino for the slots.

    whatever it is that she does on Saturdays, we had best call ahead if we plan a visit.

    so now, Cubano, you have me thinking, do i really want my daughter wiping my ass at some point?

    Croce . . been a while. beautiful voice, lots'a feeling
    and, boy, unexpectedly i have this flash of John Belushi, in ANIMAL HOUSE, ripping Croce guitar out of his hands and smashing said guitar on Croce's head.

    not that i do not like today's selection mind you, i do like it, its just that i can't shake the idea of two men, dead in their prime, disagreeing on song choice. location, location, location . . .


    once again, a thought-provoking piece, my brother,
    always a please to visit you. n
    now, back to my java.


  2. Cuban, this is a subject close to my heart - and age. Yes, my culture is different to that in other parts of the world. I remember having it explained top me in Switzerland how houses were were built to accommodate several generations, each generation occupying a floor of the house ... even cows had a place indoors in winter. It seemed to me rather a good thing that families cared for each other. Now we have families separated by distance ... including mine.

    I am old enough to be concerned about the future but do not dwell on the fact that one day I might be left to cope alone. I am grateful for my own independence and keep occupied with outside interests.

    I don't think we should put pressure on our offspring to care for us. They have their own lives, lives that we provided. We have guided them to independence - we should do the same for ourselves. So long as we have their love I don't think we should bind them to looking after an ageing parent. If they love us, that is all we need.

  3. Thanks for your comments, bare and Valerie.

    There are sometime swhen only a bit of Jim Croce will do. And that's today, in rainy London.

    I don't think there's an answer to this question of whether it's preferably to be looked after by our children or by professional staff in a care home. It's one of those thorny issues that has the potential to generate much discussion. From how we regard our elders, to how other societies treate their third-age citizens. Plenty food for thought, that's right.

    Have a great week.

    Greetings from London.

  4. I do often ponder this subject, CiL...and while, yes, I would like to think I will be taken care of should I become unable to take care of myself in my twilight years...I would never expect it of my son.
    Yes, I gave him life, but in no way do I feel he owes me anything.
    I have seen young people devote their lives to taking care of an ailing parent, and of course that is highly commendable...but what life does that person then have of their own?
    So, I guess what I'm trying to say is...what this delicate situation needs is some give and take - and a lot of understanding on both sides.
    As long as there is love between parent and child, I don't think things will go far wrong!

    Many thanks for another thought-provoking are so good for my brain! ;)

  5. Somehow I don't think the cats will do that lol I just hope to avoid all of that crap. keep going until I can't go no more and then croak in my sleep when it is time. If i have kids I wouldn't expect them to take care of me, unless they were rich or something, then they better buy me a nice little spot with a hot nurse to look after me lol

  6. In this life, you do what you have to do and what you can do when the time arrives.

    A couple of years ago, I gave up my life as it existed and moved to a place I did not wish to live: My mother had suffered a stroke and was paralyzed on her left side. It was a nursing home ("care center" with an esoteric name, as the politically correct call these places) for her; no "ands, ifs or buts" about the situation.

    My mother had been living alone and doing fine until the stroke. Even after it, her mind was clear. She wanted to remain in the area where she had lived for the past forty years so friends could visit her; therefore, I was the one who moved (my choice, without thought or hesitation), not to care for her, but simply to be able to visit her on a near-daily basis while she faded away. I am an only child, which helped and hindered the situation in various ways.

    Eight months and a few hundred thousand dollars later, she died. (These were not government dollars, either.)

    Life takes you where it wants to, and what really counts is the plan you adopt after your original plans fail due to circumstances beyond your control: Be prepared to be unprepared.

  7. We just have to listen to our own instincts when it comes to decisions of late-in-life care, I think. For me, because I know caring for the elderly as they become increasingly infirm is a full-time job, I can't imagine asking that of my children, particularly because they will most likely be working full-time jobs already.

    I even look at my 79 year old mother right now and how these years when she's still healthy and energetic are being sacrificed to the needs of her ailing 91-year-old husband, and I feel sad. It's grand that they have each other, of course, but she loves to travel and get out in the world, but she's staying home all day, every day, because that's what he needs.

    Tough decisions all around!

  8. Great of you to begin thinking on this topic. Trying to predict the future is tough; trying to finance an ideal future is even tougher. Most children will not be able to take care of their parents for economic reasons and practical reasons too. People who need around the clock care will wear anybody out, family members or not. Yet, aging in place, within familiar surroundings is the best thing for old folks.

    We ought to instill love and commitment till death do us part; but, not at the expense of misery and bankruptcy for the caretakers.

  9. I'm a creaky, so am closer to this being a reality than you. And I've travelled a lot in India and the Far East, where I've met many people who are horrified that my daughters haven't taken my in in my widowhood.

    There is a huge cultural divide in expectations - and I don't think we can clearly say one way of looking after the wrinkly is right and another wrong. We can only say what works for us, in our cultures.

    I love my daughters. I'd walk over hot coals for them. But nothing would induce me to live with them. They are independent women with families are careers and dreams of their own. I'll find a home where someone else is paid to pull up my knickers, and hope the daughters turn up to share my wine.

  10. i know that in some cultures it is tradition that the kids look after their parents once they're getting old. i wouldn't expect my kids to look after me - i hope they do in some way but it is not connected to what i did for them cause i gave freely and cause i love them and without expecting something in return

  11. These are very difficult questions--I have elderly parents, now just one left--and have taken a certain level of responsibility--however, there's been some luck in the economics of it all. A hard thing in today's world especially where people live very long (wonderful) but not always with the strength and resources they may wish.

    Your point about the different biological imperatives is very true.

    I think this is an area where there will be a lot of shifting around in the future. To some degree, I find that you do not make any bargain with your children, but also probably set a kind of example. The thing is that you hope you'll be pleasant to be around! Take care and thanks for your kind visits. k.

  12. Such a difficult question. I cared for my alcoholic manipulative mother - but could not have had her in my home. I did a lot for her - but I didn't do it in good grace. Which shames me.
    So long as the care is available, and caring, I am not certain that it matters who provides it. And my childless self would not expect my children to 'have' to care for me.
    Thanks you - such a difficult topic, such a necessary topic.

  13. Muy de acuerdo con tu reflexión.
    Las tradiciones han desaparecido desgraciadamente en muchas familias, vivimos en un mundo del que no tenemos tiempo ni para cuidarnos de nosotros mismos, creo que cada uno se tiene que hacer su propio ahorro y con ello conseguir un mejor bienestar en nuestros últimos días para que nos cuiden de una forma o de otra.
    Un abrazo.

  14. I am with you I don't want my daughter to feel she owes me anything or has to pay me back. Obviously I hope we will have a good relationship no matter what age or stage of life we are in but I don't want it to be built on obligation. My mom has already told me that she does not want to live with me when she is old, she has always tried to let me live my own life and be my own person no matter how peculiar I am. She lived with her mother for a huge portion of her life. She did everything to keep her out of care (she got no assistance from her siblings), hiring nurses but between the shifts my grandmother broke both hips and was alone for an hour. My mom realized she could not watch her round the clock or afford to hire more nurses. After my grandmother went into care my mom visited her regularly, nearly everyday and they became much closer. My grandmother even started socializing which she had no done outside of the family in a really long time. Care ended up not being the worst thing in the world in that case.

  15. Excellent essay

    ALOHA from Honolulu

  16. Great post, and I think it is good you are thinking about this, it is something we all should.

  17. Such a difficult and complex question! With my own parents in their late 70s and 80s, it is something we kids think about a lot. At the moment, my parents are still in their own home, where they want to be, and my sister looks after them as they live in the same village. None of us kids want to put them into a care home.

    However, if they were senile, had dementia, then we would probably have to...

  18. Yes, a great post and with many answers depending where in the world these questions are asked.

    Personally, I do not think that children owe anything to the parents. The parents brought the children in the world and they have the duty to care for them and to love them. For that they should expect nothing in return. But if it was done right, if the bonds of love are strong, then I'm sure that the love and care will be returned one way or the other..

  19. I meet my daughter maybe twice a year and grandchildren..... Well.

    Don´t think they will care much.

  20. I don't have children--just a stepdaughter and we only see her occasionally now that she's a teenager. I used to worry about not having anyone "to care for me" when I get older but then I looked around. Most of the older people I know with kids don't have anyone taking care of them. Today it seems most people's children move far away and only come home for holidays. Am I off on that? I just think that's the way it is now. I wrote an article not so long ago about how senior women are getting together and buying/renting homes and living together a la Designing Women. They care for each other when they're sick or have surgeries, they chip in for bills...sounds awesome to me. Although I have a feeling living with women would be like a 24/7 episode of Real Housewives. (Fights, tables being turned over, etc.)

  21. ... just returned from Cuba ... omg, so much love ...



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...