The Place of the Elderly in Our Society
“The hallmark of a civilized society is gauged by the standard of care it provides to its sick, its disabled and its elderly.”
— TD Fuego
It is widely believed that the place of the elderly is in the HOME. But, which home? To what purpose? Qui so role?*1 This article sets out to explore some of the core issues involved. We will examine the relationship between the elderly and their children and the conflicts that may, and often do, arise between them. We will also examine the role of the State in helping old people lead a normal, dignified, independent life.The Options
One of the first things that struck me upon my arrival in the UK as a teenager was, unlike Mauritians, youngsters left home once they reached the age of maturity, which was 21 at the time. For those going to university, this was earlier at age 18. Indeed, young people were encouraged to leave home by their parents, once they were in full employ or went to University — to become independent and make their own way in life.
In our oriental culture, on the other hand, we tend to keep our children, particularly boys, as long as possible with us. In many cases, it is not unusual for sons to continue living with their parents long after they get married and found a family of their own. More than emotional ties, this usually results from economic necessity. For the son, it means a mortgage-free house and for the parents, financial subsidy, if not outright support in guise of a payback for the free housing.
Except for the very few that are rich and have adequate means, boys are seen as an insurance policy for our old age. Hence, our obsession with having a male heir, the premier lot as we proudly call him. In the absence of a decent old age pension and sparse social services, we have to rely on them for much of our needs. So, like it or not, we legate our home to him to get in his (and crucially in the daughter-in-law’s!) good books, and hope they will look after us in return till our dying days.
Unfortunately, many of us will end up being disillusioned. At the extreme end, we have Old Age Pensioners being literally kicked out of the home that was once theirs, to spend their twilight years in charitable shelters like the one that is run by the Human Service Trust in Calebasses. Most will end up as child minders, cleaners, and housekeepers in general and reduced to leading a feudal, servile life in the family. Some will even be persecuted and others physically abused, but will keep quiet about these out of feelings of shame. “Qui dimoune pou dire?”*2 they think. Many others will simply die due to neglect when geriatric problems, including Alzheimer disease, befall them.
In public, the son will beat his chest and brag that he is “looking” after his parents and, unaware of the realities behind the closed doors, people will applaud him. “Ene bon garcon sa, li occupe so maman-papa,”*3 they will say approvingly.
So, what to do? First, it is an undeniable fact that, no matter what our age, we all wish to reside in our own homes. I well remember an old widow in the UK who had a long battle with the Highway Authority. In order to build a dual carriageway, a small hamlet had to be razed to the ground and the residents relocated. Whilst all the other residents agreed, presumably because the offer was to their advantage, this stubborn old lady refused to budge. The road building went ahead and, eventually, her house ended up in the middle of a roundabout.
Even with the noise and pollution from the exhaust of passing vehicles, the old dear stuck to her principles. To her, her house was not just a structure made of bricks and mortar. This was the home and hearth she had shared with her late husband. It was the place where she had borne her children who grew up there. It was the place she had shared her joys, her sorrows, her laughter and her tears with those dearest to her. It contained within its walls the memories of a lifetime. Away from it, she would doubtless perish and die. So it is with all of us.
We also want to be independent. This independence is compromised by living with children. We are forced to change the habits and routines of a lifetime. Whether it is getting up, having a meal or simply taking a shower, it has to be done at their rhythm.
For instance, it is well known that we older people rise up early, even during week-ends when, after a hard week’s work, the children may wish to have a late lie in. At other times, our aches and pains may simply keep us awake. So, we get out of bed, make a cup of tea and watch television to pass the time.
In doing just these normal, simple, mundane things that we are used to doing, we will cause some disturbance to the children who need to rest at night, whilst we can catch up on our sleep next day. At other times, it is our recuperative siesta that will be disturbed by the children. Thus, the seeds of conflict are always waiting to sprout; it does not need a declaration of war for a conflictual relationship to develop between parents and children.
The extended family living under the same roof is a very eastern phenomenon, born out of necessity rather than having anything to do with family harmony. In the absence of a Welfare State proper, parents have to rely on their off-springs for their needs in old age and are obliged to depend on them for most things.
Having led an independent life until old age, we may find that there is little dignity in having to wait for someone else, albeit our own children, to give us our food and pay for our medical care. Besides, they will have their own responsibilities toward their family. Quite often, parents can become a source of conflict between spouses, if one of them feels their needs are being neglected in favour of the parents.
The best solution, therefore, is to let the elderly continue living in their own home, particularly if they can cope. Children can try to find somewhere close by to live and visit daily if necessary. They may even help financially, if not physically, and pay for a housemaid or carer when required. The last thing the elderly want is to be deprived of their independence.
- What’s his status.
- What will people say.
- He is such a good boy, he looks so well after his parents.
* Next week: The role of the State in relation to old people