Monday, September 13, 2010

Culture and the Elderly

Ten days ago I had to make one of the toughest decisions of my life.  My dad, who turned 90 years old in May, became ill and had to go to the hospital.  It was not a life threatening illness, but it could have been serious if not attended to.  My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years back and slowly each day, physically and mentally, reveals his deteriorating condition; every minor infirmity takes an enormous toll. 

It became clear to me that my mom, 86 years old, small and frail, could no longer take care of dad.  After much prayer, consultation with my brothers and mom, we made arrangements to have dad transferred to the Veteran’s Home when the doctor released him from the hospital.  This past week has been one of personal human sadness.  My parents are separated each night for the first time in their nearly 65 years of marriage.  We go to bed wondering if dad feels lonely; there is a deep sense of guilt that perhaps we have abandoned him.

My Indian friends do not understand how we Americans can put their parents in a nursing home.  The extended family is strong in their culture and it’s unimaginable that they would not move their elderly parents into their home or at least make sure they were taken care of in their own home or that of another relative.  But, then again, Indians can’t understand how or why Americans cook their own food, wash their own dishes or clean their own homes.  That’s what the servants do. 

My landlord in Delhi was nearly the same age as my dad when we lived in India.  I watched my old friend slowly decline and though he was not put in a nursing home I can’t say that the family care for my landlord was any more compassionate or more caring than what many American elderly receive.  Mr. J’s extended family attended to him less, on a daily basis, than we do with my dad in a nursing home 40 kilometers away.  Instead of a qualified medical staff looking after the elderly, the task of bathing, cleaning and feeding in the Indian society is relegated to the same person who cleans the house each day.

The issue of the elderly in culture, as with most things, cannot be generalized.  Each family in every culture make decisions based on the relationships children have with their parents.  Some American families do indeed seem to cast off their parents into nursing homes, as do Indian families who seemingly cast off their parents into the hands of hired staff.  I believe those actions by both cultural families are the exception, not the rule.  Be they American, Chinese, Indian or European, most family members do the best they can for their parents when the tough choices of caring for their final days faces them.  It is the bond between children and parents over a lifetime that determines the last days, and one should not judge either the individual or the culture in such matters.

Mom asked dad yesterday if he was saying his prayers.  His answer from a voice that once was strong now barely a whisper, “I try to, but sometimes I fall asleep.”  That’s okay, pop, go ahead and close your eyes.  God’s marvelous grace continues to sustain you and those who love and pray for you each day.