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Most urban couples today say that they will never live with their children in their old age. But do we think of the fact that affordable elder care in India is abysmal, even almost non-existent?
At a recent party, a couple joked that they couldn’t wait till their kids were settled. They wanted to “kick them out and finally live their own life”.
Although I laughed off that statement as an exaggeration, the statement made me uncomfortable for a long time: since when do Indian parents long to kick their offspring out of the house? Most Indian folks clutch their offspring to their bosom on the day that they are born, and don’t let go till they are at least 50.
This is a new breed of parents; evolved, liberal and vehemently espousing the independent life.
This couple have made lofty post-retirement plans that are designed to keep them busy. Planning a second career, travelling, or pursuing hobbies that they neglected in their youth. They have let their kids free to pursue their goals and don’t wish to be a burden on them.
These sophisticated, urban couples will swear that they will never live with their children and are very informed about every senior community and assisted-living arrangement in their locality.
But how practical are these very ‘noble’ thoughts?
As a parent who had these ideas myself but has now been given the first dose of what an empty nest really feels like, I am rethinking my position. I am jealous of my friend from a business family who has made it clear to her kids that they need to study and come back home to manage the family business.
Having recently dealt with a bed-ridden, ailing father-in-law who used to be very independent and never had any expectations from his offspring, I have discovered that nobody can predict what can happen in old age. Even the most selfless thoughts are no match for the bitter reality of old-age. You could open up your heart and wallet to helpers, attendants and nurses, and still have no guarantee of good geriatric care.
When we are fit and agile, we can never imagine how vulnerable old age can be.
An elderly, widowed friend whose health is gently deteriorating, is an easy target for crooks. From the doodhwala to doctors to bankers to her own house help, everyone tries their hand at taking advantage of her. Since she doesn’t want to bother her two children who are settled abroad, she is saddled with a large house, ill-health, and all the accompanying responsibilities with a whole new crisis to deal with each day.
Just a couple of decades ago, parents were very clear about what they wanted from their children.
Children were responsible for taking care of their parents in their old age, and parents on their part did their best to settle their kids to the best of their financial abilities. Many parents offered free baby-sitting support and a roof over their child’s head when required, even if it was inconvenient, as an added incentive to keep the kids close by.
While success in academics was applauded, children were also appreciated for their less obvious qualities like a caring nature, their sensitivity or their ability to handle a domestic crisis.
Many kids today haven’t been given any such direction. They have been given the impression that professional success is their highest priority. Yet, it is not unusual for these parents to start pining for their offspring the moment they get seriously ill, later in life.
The bitter realisation that no amount of paid nursing or professional homecare will ever be a match for the concern of a loving family member comes a bit late. Yet we applaud such parents for their selflessness, instead of being alarmed by this trend even though we are aware that the average life-span and the accompanying age-related diseases keep increasing ever year.
It is very hard for an offspring who has set on a particular career path and who has never had any familial responsibilities to suddenly put his professional ambitions on hold when a family emergency strikes.
I suspect that stories about children taking financial advantage of their parents and then abandoning them in old age, or maybe their own difficulties in taking care of an elderly family member freaks out modern parents so they don’t wish to be in that vulnerable position themselves but is maintaining a completely independent life from your children really the solution?
India is still a long way off in its goal to provide affordable old age care. With the absence of good government schemes and expensive private care, it is practically guaranteed that we will rely on our children to care for us in our old age, so why do we leave our children so unprepared for this event? Like ostriches, we bury our heads in the sand and stay in denial about our inevitable dependence on our children even as our joints start creaking and our sugar levels spike.
The parent-child relationship is not always warm and cosy like a Barjatya movie nor is every child as dutiful like Piku. This relationship is inevitably fraught with misunderstandings and mixed feelings, yet it is a beautiful relationship. It is meant to be a symbiotic relationship: a parent needs the child just as much as the child needs the parent.
The excessive emphasis on academic excellence and achievement has left us with a new generation of youth who start their own companies or write best-selling books by the time they are 25, yet are completely incapable of handing an ailing member of their own family.
Empathy, concern for others and patience are forgotten qualities, and I don’t completely blame the youth. It’s hard to care about others when all you were valued for your entire life were your good grades and if you got good grades, nothing else mattered.
It would be nice if holidays and summers of a child’s growing years are spent volunteering for the ill or the elderly, or doing activities that make happy memories with the family instead of that extra coaching or summer camp that will ensure that a child achieves the desired 95+ percentage. We should not be afraid to express to our children that we need them around, not just because we want to burden them with our illnesses in our old age, but simply because they are fascinating creatures and we crave their company.
I have no delusions about my independence, and I am not ashamed to admit that I expect my fledglings to return to the nest from time to time when I am old and grey. Though not completely thrilled with the idea, they realize that that they have to take care of me just as I have taken care of them all these years.
I even test them from time to time, which is why my daughter is in the kitchen right now making me some coffee while I feign a headache.
Image source: a still from the movie Piku
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Ashwina Garg is a freelance writer and entrepreneur. She is the author of the best-
Thought provoking and very well written article.
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