This morning, I woke up to a text message from my brother sent late last night, “You read the nyt article about aging Asian American parents. Hits kinda close to home. Comments are quite thought provoking.” I had. And he didn’t know, but I had contemplated sending the article to him as well.
The particular article, published yesterday, describes the struggles of Asian Americans in following the cultural expectation of caring for aging parents.
“This idea that the younger generation is culturally mandated to take care of their parents is deeply ingrained in the Chinese culture,” Mr. Feng said. “Children are supposed to take care of older parents in need.”
The article goes on to discuss personal stories of families that had taken aging elders into their homes. Some of the women had quit their jobs to serve as full-time caretakers rather than place their loved ones into nursing facilities or retirement communities. The article itself was fairly brief, but as my brother pointed out, the real battle was in the comments.
One commenter wrote:
“The expectation that we will be the sole caregivers for our medically complex and sometimes emotionally needy parents is often impractical and unrealistic. I was told many times (as the only daughter) that the reason I was brought into the world was to provide eldercare for my parents when the time came … Their understanding of the situation was that “the sacrificed for me, now I must do the same for them”. The expectation that the younger generation will be the sole caregivers for the older generation is not feasible for many of us. It may have been possible when our parents were young and someone (usually a woman) didn’t have outside employment, but it is not sustainable for many of us. A child should not be raised for the sole purpose of serving the parent.”
Two more wrote:
“To abandon one’s parents when thousands of years of shared cultural memory scream “NO!” is to reject wisdom honed by timeless truths.”
“I doubt you have witnessed the ‘specialized care’ in nursing homes/facilities, it is a death sentence … When did we get so indifferent? So cold?”
Having visited my father who spent the last five weeks in inpatient rehabilitation at a nursing home, I would agree that the living conditions are far less than ideal, though I wouldn’t go so far as to call them a death sentence. (I saw no physical abuse, gross negligence, or filthy conditions that are the material of occasional media exposes of nursing homes). In fact, my father’s primary complaint was about the food. He could never stomach much of the tasteless mush they served residents, and my mother ended up cooking and bringing him a number of his meals. Additionally, he would complain that his roommate left the thermostat too high, and would blast the TV volume too loud and too late at night. Yet, in many ways my father was luckier than most of the residents there. My mother visited him every day, and my brother as well on the weekends, providing him with company and conversation.
My own parents waited until late (their 40s) to have children. (Optimistically) assuming it takes me five years to complete my PhD and an additional three years spent in a post-doctoral position, by the time I begin looking for a more permanent job, my mother will be in her 70s, and my father in his 80s if he survives his Parkinson’s for that long. The woman in the NYT article was 61 and quit her job as a manicurist to take care of her mother. I would be barely 30, and maybe just starting my own family and career.
When my grandmother suffered a stroke in the beginning of 2012, my mother dropped everything – taking all her vacation days, leaving care of my father to my brother and I with some hired help – and spent most of the next five months in China. She was by my grandmother’s side throughout her last days, and then stayed for her funeral and to help carry out her will. Even so, when she returned, she expressed the sentiment that she had somehow not done enough. She told me again and again that “this” (my grandmother’s stroke and passing?) would not have happened had she been there, and that my grandmother was wrong in not keeping one of her daughters close to home to take care of her (my mother’s sister lives in Finland).
Being my mother’s only daughter, this terrified me. Growing up in the US, my cultural education gave me much larger doses of the values of individuality and independence than Confucian familial piety. While I acknowledge that I owe everything to my parents, I wonder about the extent of the sacrifices I will have to make for them. I want to live my own life, with the freedom to pursue my own goals, yet I cannot envision sending them away where there is a chance they will be miserable and poorly cared for. Whether I could even afford that is another issue.
Early last year, another NYT article caught my eye. The article drew attention to an alarming “Plan C” – a third alternative to home care or nursing facilities – suicide. The article brings up the alarming trend of increasing rates of elder suicide, citing that in South Korea the suicide rate for those age 65+ had quadrupled from 2000 to 2010.
“As the chances for riches grew in recent years, parents began going to lengths to try to ensure their children’s success, and by extension their family’s, that make other countries’ versions of helicopter parenting seem tame.”
The article goes on to say (in less explicit terms) that the elderly were killing themselves so as not to burden their children (financially or otherwise) with having to take care of them. While this may seem far-fetched and beyond extreme to some, again it was my mother’s words that caused me panic. Many times, I have heard her say that she would rather die than be senile or bed-ridden. And just weeks ago, while returning home from visiting my father, she told me that she would never consent to being in my dad’s current position and would rather “jumping bridge” – a reference to the method of suicide that involves (mostly Cornell students) leaping into the gorges off Thurston bridge. And as frightening as this is, I do understand that there are some worse things than death. While my mother is very much mentally lucid and still managing her health, her comments add another layer of difficulty (and many more layers of worry) to the decisions that my brother and I will eventually have to make.
And while my family’s situation has its own personal details, my problems are not unique, but universal. All of us are born to parents, and unless we have the misfortune of losing them young, they will age. And how (or even whether) we choose to take care of them is a human problem, with our decisions shaped by our sense of responsibility, culture, obligation, love, and expectation.