At the outset let me state that this post is mostly a collection of musings, rather than having a definite thesis statement.
I’m currently in India. I had to think hard before coming here for many reasons as you can guess. I finally decided to take the risk especially since there’s no telling how long this situation is going to last. After all, I’ve canceled twice and my parents aren’t getting any younger.
My father is 89, mum 79. When you visit on a yearly basis, that which eludes the daily eye becomes quite obvious in terms of reminding one of parents’ mortality. Wrinkles, aches, pains that develop over months and years seem shocking to the interim visitor, and in recent years, I’ve always left with the hope that I get to see them again.
But this time was different. My parents seemed to have aged by decades since the last time I visited a year and a half ago. My dad had always seemed together despite his frailty and gradual loss of weight. But this time I could see he had changed. While he remembered me, and was still quite independent albeit full of pain because of his sciatica, it was shocking to see how forgetful he had become – he asks the same question over and over, he is much slower in getting up and sitting down, and he seems to sleep an awful lot. Mum too seemed bent over, although she never really had back issues. Of course, she’s still the same when it comes to the kitchen, her domain. She still is an amazing cook and hasn’t slowed down on that front, and hopefully will remain Kitchen Queen till the end. But she’s slower when it comes to walking and moving about in general.
All this got me thinking of old age. I don’t have children, and never wanted any because I always thought I was too messed up to have kids. I still feel the same although there are flashes of anger that accompany the idea that it didn’t have to be this way. I didn’t have to be messed up; it was something that could have been avoided. I didn’t choose depression and PTSD, which led me to thinking not having children would be the smarter choice. In any case, that’s a different topic.
I have worried about being all alone in my old age if my husband passes away before me. I always knew that having kids just to take care of you was a selfish reason to reproduce, but I’ll admit I’m scared of finding myself alone. But especially of late, on this trip, I’ve been looking around. There are plenty of people – couples or single – who have children but whose offspring don’t care about them. I’m really lucky I have a wonderful, responsible brother who takes very good care of our parents while I have the luxury of living an independent life abroad. But there are people who like my brother live in the same city as their parents but don’t even bother checking in on them. Then there are those who have moved abroad leaving their aged and sick parents to fend for themselves back home. I’m not judging anyone, but this does make me realize that simply having children doesn’t guarantee you won’t live a lonely life in your sunset years.
Something else I feel compelled to comment on especially given I’m from a “traditional” culture is the value of treating elders with respect as decreed by the shastras or religious treatises. This may lead one to think there is no parental abuse or neglect in India but having lived in America for over twenty years now, I have witnessed many loving American families that continue to care for their parents whether by visiting them often or making sure they are taken good care of in a home. This in a “selfish, independent” culture.
My point is two-fold – one, traditional cultures may balk at keeping parents in old-age homes passing judgement on those who “abandon” them. Assisted living isn’t even a concept here. There are however joint families in India where children may house their parents but make them miserable by not just reminding them that they’re a burden, but also through verbal and physical abuse. Which brings me to reiterating my second point – just because you have kids does not guarantee you will not be lonely and sad in old-age.
What is more important: having the satisfaction – and arrogance – of doing your duty by simply housing parents while abusing, ignoring and insulting them, or by letting them live a life of dignity even if it means letting them live independently if they prefer that or moving them into assisted living if it were a choice?
Perhaps the thing that struck me most about how “even” Americans are family-oriented and caring was when my physician in Pittsburgh first asked me about my family in India. When I told her that my parents and brother lived in the city of Pune, the first thing she said was, “That’s really nice, you have your brother there, so you don’t have to keep worrying about how they are doing.”
Of course, let me reiterate there are many people who lovingly take care of their parents in India just as there may be children who neglect and abuse the elderly in America. There is often truth to stereotyping, but yes, stereotypes can be also woefully biased and outright wrong. Both good and bad ones.
I would love to hear your thoughts on what you think duty towards the elderly really could mean, and if there is a Christian/ Jewish equivalent of Hinduism when it comes to taking care of parents (1)! The gendered dynamics around care-giving for our older generation, and the reality that more of this care generally falls on women, also makes this a feminist concern. That my brother takes an active role in caring for my parents is not just welcome, but he is a good son as per the shastras!
Vibha Shetiya was born in India and raised in Zambia before moving back to India as a teenager. She has been living in the US since 1999. Vibha has degrees in journalism and religion and a Ph.D in Asian Cultures and Languages. She is an instructor at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of New Mexico.