Nobody has ever before asked the nuclear family to live all by itself in a box the way we do. With no relatives, no support, we've put it in an impossible situation.
"I wish things were the way they used to be," my mother said to me the other day. Because of what we'd been talking about, I knew what she meant: she wished things were like they were when she was growing up, when she had plenty of relatives living nearby. Parents, siblings, grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles - by the dozens. When her father's mother was the age my mother is now, she had so many grandchildren that, after her husband died, she never had to spend the night alone. I doubt that the lovely family shown above will be living under similar circumstances 50 years from now. The children might be living near their aging parents, however, the more education they get, the less likely this will be.
Flash forward 60 years. My mother lives in Michigan 500+ miles away from most of her relatives. She hears occasionally from her nieces and remaining siblings and, just this past weekend, her widowed brother-in-law and his two daughters visited - a rare occasion these days as everyone ages. Meanwhile, the only relatives she has living nearby are a daughter who doesn't own a car and is a working single mother, an older sister, who doesn't drive anymore, and a widowed sister-in-law she rarely sees. My father has several nieces living in the area who he only sees at funerals or weddings. Not much of a family support network that can pop in and check on things or send a child/grandchild to spend time with the grandparents.
Then there are the rest of the children:
- Myself (the oldest), living 2,000 away on the West Coast
- Second daughter, living 200 miles away, outside Chicago (main caregiver)
- Third daughter, living about 5 miles away, with many responsiblities, no car, and health concerns
- Only son, living in Colorado with four children at home and a demanding job
My parents have a live-in caregiver, but she can't replace an entire community of family, no matter how capable she is. My mother has a good friend who lives about 100 miles away, but she is also aging and her husband isn't well enough to drive far - so the 100 miles might as well be a thousand. What can children do? For starters, adult children of aging parents need to recognize that there's a problem. A shocking number of Baby Boomers Don't Have Time to Visit Aging Parents, according to a British study. Presumably, that's also true of Baby Boomers in North America, which means a lot of lonely old people. China, Japan, Europe - they're all experiencing care crises because so many seniors have children who are living far away. This problem is so big in China that there are suggestions that caring for aging parents become law. This article on legislating "filial piety," makes for interesting reading - and thinking.
I'm not telling you this to guilt you out. I'm in the same boat myself - living far away from parents who are often lonely and bored. I can remember when things were different. We used to visit my grandparents every summer and living across the road was someone we all called Aunt Verdie. I don't know if Aunt Verdie was my grandfather's aunt or a cousin; all I know is that she was related through marriage to grandpa's mother and that we called her aunt. Aunt Verdie was a tiny little woman with white hair and I can remember going there alone or with my mom to visit her and eating biscuits with jam. I can also remember that her house had a large porch and she often sat out there watching people pass, either on foot or by car, and, since many of those people were related to her, they sometimes stopped in to visit or see if she needed anything from the store. It was easy enough to do, since she wasn't off the beaten track of family life. I can tell from the picture here, that this visiting was going on for a long time because it shows my grandmother when she was younger visiting Aunt Verdie. There are at least three - maybe four - generations in this photo: Aunt Verdie, my grandmother, several of her younger children, and (being held) her oldest grandchild. I envy that ability to just stroll over to see your parents or elderly relatives. However, I also realize that living down the street or across the road from relatives doesn't go along with the mobile, highly-educated lifestyle my husband and I have led.
Next time: solutions to this problem and more.
I also wanted to share a new interest I've taken up. I'm now on Pinterest. For those of you who know about Pinterest, I don't need to say more. For those of you who don't, I encourage you to get involved. I've got a Board on Old is Beautiful that you might enjoy if you already "do" Pinterest or would like to try it out. Happy viewing/pinning.
I'd love to hear from you:
How far do you live away from your elderly parents and how does that impact your life and caregiving issues?