I haven’t posted for nearly two months. My father had a massive heart attack on 10th November and then triple bypass on 14 November. He is 83 years old and had aged a lot in the year before the heart attack. Some of you will be familiar with this – that time when you see one of your parents and think “Wow. You’ve gone to the next age!” My last post was about cultivating kindness and beloved community. These past months have taken me deeper into these practices.
Major medical incidents such as my father’s heart attack can push a family to its edges. These past months, my parents, two siblings and I have been to the depths of hell and the heights of beauty. Physical and emotional suffering woven into the literal and figurative opening of hearts – not just my father’s.
Five weeks after the heart attack, I left my parents’ house for some rest and relaxation. For me this meant spending time where there is sunshine and blue sky, hiking up a mountain, being with friends, playing with an adorable puppy, potlucks, dancing and sleeping through the night.
My mind more able to give thought taking in the big picture, I reflected on our family situation. I have often heard it said that “It takes a village to raise a child.” Now I feel certain that it takes a village to care for our elders.
What a strange culture we have created here in the United States. Broken down into nuclear families, as our parents get older we – their children – are faced with the question of their care. I have a friend whose grandmother never wanted to burden anyone with her care. When the time seemed right, she moved to a community of elders where she lived independently, in her own home. I think she was in her late 80s when she did this. When the time seemed right, she shifted within the same community to assisted living. Finally, when the time seemed right, still in that community, she went into hospice where she died.
Her family visited frequently. This arrangement worked well for her.
My parents are from India. They come from a tradition where elderly parents anticipate living with one of their children. The two most likely scenarios are living with the eldest son and his family or living with an unmarried daughter. I see that some Indian-origin families here in the USA are creating homes that are set up for joint households. We haven’t done that in our family.
Now my parents are in their late 70s and early 80s. They still live in the house where I grew up – the suburbs of Chicago. They would like to stay here – it is familiar, what they know. I’m aware that the community of friends they once had has dispersed – Indian couples their age have gone to live with their children in different states across the USA. The neighbors in the street have also dispersed – only a few of the original families remain.
My parents have asked me – single, freelance daughter than I am – to come live with them indefinitely. I see this as an understandable request – though it isn’t without complexity and I haven’t responded with an immediate and simple “YES!”
When I think about the idea in depth, I find myself concluding that children and parents living together isn’t a solution in and of itself. When elders have become isolated (as mine have), putting total responsibility on their care to one or two of their children is asking a lot – in my opinion.
If I were to move here to the Chicagoland area, my sister lives nearby. So, that would mean two children to share responsibility for elder care. Though better than one, I think two daughters (one married) living near each other to care for our parents would still be a daunting responsibility, in the absence of strong wider community. We have a brother who lives in DC with his wife. They, too, would be part of our core community – albeit from a distance – taking responsibility for elder care. Again, this seems to be placing an unrealistic amount of responsibility on grown children.
If there comes a point when my parents are living with me or even nearby to me – whether in the house they’ve lived in for decades or somewhere new – I would want to ensure that I have strong roots in community. And that I could integrate my parents into this community. What I am imagining is a scenario where, while the bottom line for their care might come down to me, in effect they and I are all being cared for by a community that consists of much more than the my parents, my siblings and I and professional service providers, e.g. doctors.
Perhaps naively, I am sometimes imagining a scenario where I am living with my parents – only it is very different from the present situation. We are in a community where we know the majority of our neighbors, where my parents have friends and can walk down a colorful, vibrant street and feel safe, known and welcomed. They only need shoes on their feet to walk, however slowly, to a nearby coffee shop or grocery story. The neighborhood is multigenerational. Our house/apartment has a constant flow of people of all ages streaming through it.
My mother knits beautifully. My father gardens beautifully. I’ve not taken to either myself -but maybe someone else on the street relishes in learning tricks of the trade from them. Or maybe I do take up the spade, and with help from others and my dad directing from a chair, I cultivate a fruit and vegetable garden. If we aren’t living near my sister, maybe when I travel, neighbors are happy to check in on my parents or a friend stays over – a friend who has been to the house so many times that there is trust and camaraderie between them and my parents.
Ahh, but this is all very idyllic you say. People are too busy with just trying to care for their own families without helping others out. Maybe. What if this isn’t about one family helping out another? What if I am imagining a different paradigm rooted in mutuality rather than tit- for-tat, rooted in interdependence rather than independence? What if I am imagining community rooted in cultivating all of our resources to care for one another as though we are, in fact, extended family-regardless of blood and marriage ties?
I once met a woman who lives in a rural English village. When her husband was hit with a long term illness, she didn’t have to cook for one year. For one year, without her asking, people in her village supplied her and her husband with meals.
I get the impression our situation isn’t unique. Sure, some aspects of it are very particular to our individual and group dynamics. But as I talk to my peers – those of us in our 40s and 50s with elderly parents – I find that many aspects of my family situation are shared by others.
It takes a village to raise a child.
It takes a village to care for our elders.
Right now I feel like asking: Can someone please tell me, where might I find the village?