03 June, 2016

When are you too old to ‘care’? The Hindu Editorial

By Aparna Karthikeyan

With medical advancements extending the lives of the elderly and materialistic aspirations forcing working parents to have kids later in their lives, the sandwich generation is busy caring for everybody.

Ever since my parents turned 60, their lives became very, very busy. Except, it wasn’t the sort of busy they might have imagined — reclining and reading, visiting and vacationing. Instead their time is entirely spent ‘caring’. Between themselves, they care full-time for a 91-year-old man, an 87-year-old woman, and part-time for a 17-year-old girl and a one-year-old baby. They plan meals for two mostly toothless people (one who has an old, artificial set, and another that has two barely-there teeth), one who baulks at south-Indian food, and another who will eat only south-Indian food. Then, they plan their meals around the infant’s vaccination appointments, the teenager’s shopping trips, and the elderly people’s eye-doctor visits. Their holidays, if any, depend entirely on the whims and fancies of a surrogate carer, who tends to bail out in the last minute with a “Sorry, I’m going on a temple-tour”. All they do then is shrug, go out on a supply-run and pray that the baby won’t throw up its mashed apple.

My parents belong to the sandwich generation, squashed between an older one that’s exhausted its active years, and a younger one that’s so active, it’s exhausting. Their parents never faced this sort of thing, they never had it this hard. “People died early. 60 was considered ‘old’,” my grandmother once told me. (She had lost her parents by the time she was fifteen.) In their time, bringing up children was easy-peasy. They had them, and they, err, grew up. They fed the kids whatever was cooked for the family. They sent them off to a local school, sometimes to a college. Grandchildren visited them during the summer. For two months, the house was a mess, their schedules were a disaster. But once everyone went away, they were back chanting “Krishna, Rama”.

It is increasingly rare to find ‘Krishna, Rama’-chanting grandparents. My parents are not the exception; they’re the rule. Many their age don’t have the time. What they have instead is ambitious children, elderly parents and energetic grandchildren. And a society that tells them they cannot abandon their parents, they must not neglect their grandchildren, and they definitely should not say no to their children.

If the children happen to live abroad, they must go there and figure out a whole new way of living and dressing and eating. And of course, care for their grandchildren. If their parents live separately, they must be emotionally blackmailed to come and live with them — doesn’t matter if it’s a squeeze, because, you know, the more uncomfortable everybody is in this life, the lesser the chances of being reborn as an earthworm in the next.

It is increasingly rare to find ‘Krishna, Rama’-chanting grandparents. My parents are not the exception; they’re the rule. Many their age don’t have the time. What they have instead is ambitious children, elderly parents and energetic grandchildren.

Shirking all of this, and hankering after a ‘retired’ life is ‘selfish’.

“But why do you two want to go to a retirement home? Your son earns well. Your daughter has a beautiful house. Go live with them! Six months here, six months there.” Or, “But what will your parents do? What do you mean they like living alone? What if one of them falls down in the bathroom? Move them at once to your house.”

The advice flows freely. Mostly, the peeps who offer it are (a) much older, and have never cared for the very old and the very young simultaneously, and (b) the young idealist, for whom Indian values = three generations sitting around the dining table.

Only their peers understand the need for some little respite. When they get together, they swap notes. “How is your daughter?”

“She moved to Texas and she’s expecting her second baby in July. But my 101-year-old father-in-law won’t let us go anywhere. He only wants his son and me to look after him…”

“Well, we can’t dream of travelling now. My mother broke her hip…”

What’s worse is the complete absence of a support system for them. There are calls for crèches in offices. There are cries for paternal leave. There are agencies that supply nannies. But there’s no clamour for assisted living facilities and homes for the elderly to recuperate after an illness. Oh, I know we have a huge population and all that, but surely we can occasionally look to the West for some workable solutions? The Netherlands have plenty. Friends of ours who lived in a suburb outside Amsterdam — both single women in their seventies, with no immediate family — were cared for by the state. Their weekly groceries were home-delivered; someone came around to clean and cook. The council sent around a vehicle, and they went shopping.

On the other hand, what do WE offer old people, looking after older people?

Oh yes, there are nurses and attenders and agencies that help you find help. We tried a few recently when we had a very ill family member. It was quite an experience. One chap — a trained nurse, the agency said — treated the patient and the oxygen cylinder alike, lifting them as a weight-lifter would. Another rang one morning and said he had to go to the station. We thought he was going to pick someone up from Egmore. Turned out, he was involved in a skirmish and had to report to the police station.

“Don’t trust anybody. Do everything yourself,” we were told. But it was difficult. And we were nowhere as old as my parents or their friends. They do it everyday, with little fuss. They plod on, despite aching knees and varicose-veined legs. And they smile and tell everybody how sweet it is to have four generations in the same house. What they never mention is that only one does all the grunge work...

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