A key part of all culture is family, and a vital part of a family is what I call the elders of the family. These are the oldest living members of the family. In most cases, these are the grandparents and greatgrandparents. To me, these should be the most revered members of the family. They should be fought over. There should be desire for the elders to live in the childrens' homes.
Unfortunately, this is not the case in the United States any more.
As I have travelled around the world, most homes that I visit outside of the U.S. are filled with many generations of family. At first I thought that this was due to lower economic status, but the more I travelled, and the more I matured and began having children of my own, I began to understand that this rarely had anything to do with money. This is the way things were by choice not by bad circumstance. Many cultures have rules to decide with whom the parents will live. It is often the eldest son that is chosen for this honor, but there are many variations.
The only place where I have seen a significant number of grandparents not living with their children and grandchildren is in the United States. It seems that we have developed a culture where putting our aging adults out to pasture, with the occasional visit spawned by obligation and guilt, is now considered appropriate.
I firmly believe we in the United States have lost reverence for our elders. In removing the grandparents from the home, we are depriving ourselves and our children a lifetime of earned wisdom. Wisdom gained from being alive for more than sixty years. Wisdom gained from raising children to adults. Wisdom gained from dealing with a life of relationships and jobs and, well, just plain life. We have lost skills that were once passed from generation to generation. In a much more selfish and utilitarian view, we have lost built-in baby-sitters, house-sitters, garden waterers, and even dog-sitters.
Our children are missing so much without being with their elders. They are being raised by day-care workers who are earning a paycheck and have no vested interested in the morals, values, and education of our most precious resources. I know some have no choice, but many of us are actively making the choice to have our children raised by the State.
What about poor or declining health you ask? As a physician, I understand situations where there is need for medical care. I know there are times when the medical care required for a family member surpasses the family’s ability to provide. I get that. I have also witnessed many cases of caregiver burnout. However, while these situations occur, it is not as common as many fear. Fortunately, I have not had to do that myself, but my parents have, and while it was hard, I don’t think they regret it at all.
What would you prefer... dying at home surrounded by those who love you, even if you were a burden for a while, or dying alone in an “old folks home” surrounded by other dying people? There is no question on how I would like to spend my last weeks and months on this earth. And if we desire this for ourselves, how can we deprive our parents of this? Well, we do every day. I call it fear and selfishness.
It is not nice to watch your parents get old and sick and, yes, even die. However, this is part of life. Did we forget this? Are we so delusional to think that by not being with a person as they die we are somehow less affected by it? We are affected by death. We should be. Our children should understand it as well. It is part of the cycle of life we live while on this earth. Hiding from it or trying to sweep it out of sight (i.e. a nursing home), takes away so much from those dying and takes away so much from us as well. Being present for life and for death makes us more caring, more able to appreciate the moments we have, makes us more human.
And while death may eventually be part of having our elders live with us, there are typically many, many years to enjoy and cherish while they are very much alive. Please don't miss out on that. Please don't buy in to the status quo. Please remember what so many of our generation have forgot. Our elders are a vital part of our family. They are a vital part of our community. They are a vital part of our culture.