Monday, February 18, 2013

Who Will Take Care of Mother?


Some years ago, while waiting for my turn to be called for jury duty, I sat in the small coffee shop in the courthouse and overheard a conversation I found intriguing. Today, that conversation came to mind as I read an article in the New York Times.
The conversation in the coffee shop went something like this. "I'm the oldest and I'm supposed to take care of my mother, but she lives in Japan and I live here in the United States. What am I to do?" The attorney with whom this young man was sitting said, "Send her to live in Hawaii. She'll be able to get money to live there and you'll know she's taken care of." After a bit of tactful inquiry with some friends in the legal profession, I found that the woman was referring to the law that allowed elderly foreigners to live in the United States and collect Social Security Disability benefits even though they had not worked in the United States. For this young man, it was the answer to a very upsetting problem and also an example of a stark change in culture.
Some cultures have implicit rules that direct parents, all their lives, to work to give their children the benefits of a very good education.  The unspoken agreement is that these children are, in effect, their "pension."  What happens when that cultural understanding no longer holds up in a world where children not only leave the family, but the country where they have grown up? What happens when the eldest no longer recognizes this obligation and the country in which the parents live doesn't recognize any obligation to them, either?
The moral dilemma and the pitiful circumstances of these elderly parents is truly wrenching but more so when you see how some have decided their own fate.  The article in the Times describes the circumstances of a 78-year-old South Korean widow who had decided that suicide was better than the life she was being forced to live. Not only did she drink poisonous pesticide in front of her town's City Hall, she left a suicide note in her pocketbook near her body. The note said simply, "How can you do this to me? A law should serve the people, but it didn't protect me."  The laws she was referring to were supposed to provide a modest pension for the elderly, but she was one of the many who didn't qualify. This happened in a country and a culture formally known for its protection and care of its elderly. For that reason, the Times article went on to state, there is no Social Security and "nursing homes (are) rare."

In a world that is experiencing something more explosive than the industrial revolution, cultures have been turned upside down and those who clung to them are being thrown to the wind. The current suicide rate in South Korea, according to the article, has "nearly quadrupled in recent years" and this makes it among the highest in the developed nations. In 2010, the suicide rate of those over 65 was noted to be 4,378 while there were 1,161 suicides in 2000. Is it the competitive stress of today's society, as the article notes, rather than a change in the family structure?
Economic conditions, too, are making it much more difficult for the young to make their own way in the world, much less provide for elderly and possibly sickly parents. I'm sure they do not dismiss their cultural, familial obligation casually and I'm also sure there is a great sense of guilt about it.
Here in the United States just two or three generations ago elderly parents and grandparents all lived either in the same house or in adjacent houses. One woman told me that her grandmother had bought land and built a house for each of her six children next to each other. It was as though she had provided their own little compound. The family took care of their own and was close knit. Jobs were stable, people worked at one company, at one location for their entire working lives. Job changes and corporate mobility have brought that to an end. Only one elderly member, in her 90s, lives in a house in the "compound" which she refuses to leave.
A curious twist, however, is now being seen here in the United States where college-educated children, unable to find a job that affords a living wage to be on one's own, have returned to the parental nest. Retirements are put off, budgets are recalculated, benefits are cut and even here the winds of dramatic cultural change are blowing sharply in our faces.
So, who will take care of mother may be turned around to a different question in our country. It may be, rather, will mother still take care of us? Truly, a mother's work is never done.