Elderly Parents: Whose Responsibility Are They? Part 1

Rhetorical question. Elderly parents must obviously be looked after by their children. If a couple has one child, then that child must care for them in their old age. Where there is more than one child, that responsibility must be shared among them all.

It’s simple, right? Children should look after their old parents. Nothing unheard of, nothing revolutionary. And I’m pretty sure this is a universal truth, no matter who you are or where you’re from. So why am I spelling this out? Because this simple, obvious fact is not so obvious in my family. And it is my grandmother Mercy who is suffering unnecessarily as a result.

My grandparents brought up their four children in Mumbai on a single, modest income. Most of my grandfather’s salary went into raising and educating all their kids, leaving very little savings. So great was their trust that their sons would look after them in their old age. And therefore, so severe the hurt when that didn’t happen.

Both sons settled in America in the 90s. Despite doing well, they were irregular in sending money home to their parents. As anyone who runs a household will know, how can you plan your expenses if you don’t know when your next income will arrive? This was the predicament my grandmother often found herself in, and was too embarrassed to ask her sons. So whenever her stress became palpable, it was my mom who would quietly place money in their cupboard.

Mom was the first of her siblings to get married. My dad’s job in Abu Dhabi was on a rotation basis: three-monthlong shifts, which eventually came down to 45 days, at a natural gas liquefaction plant out in the middle of the desert, followed by a four-week break at home in Mumbai. After my birth, he asked mom to give up her job as he felt it was best that one parent be present full-time. She has been a homemaker ever since.

As the eldest, she was an integral part of her parents’ and siblings lives; helping out with education expenses, organising weddings, then children’s baptisms, and many such family occasions. By the mid-90s, after Daughter 2 relocated to Dubai, mom was the only sibling left in Mumbai. As my grandfather’s heart condition and diabetes worsened, she was their constant support through the increasing number of medical appointments, emergencies, operations and in-depth home care. She managed all of that, raised my sister and myself, battled her own health issues and was also there for her in-laws when various crises arose on their home front. And whether he was at home or abroad, dad was her pillar of support through all these ups and downs.

Her siblings made intermittent visits whenever possible. But for the first 24 years since her marriage, as long as she lived in Mumbai, not a single one of them knew what it took to look after ageing parents for years at a stretch while also raising your own children. It was physically and emotionally taxing at times, but Mom did it all with love and without complaint.

Out of consideration for her siblings’ expenses, she’d often downplay the issues at home to avoid lengthy discussions when they rang, as international calls weren’t cheap back then. She carried on with her duties, benevolently thinking the best of her siblings, that they were busy in their lives far away; as long as she could manage, what was the need to trouble them? And yes, she made it a point to be able to manage. They were her parents and our grandparents; of course we looked after them with love. It was for us as natural as breathing. We adjusted our lives and schedules to accommodate their care because that’s what you do for family. And we naively assumed that’s how mom’s siblings thought as well because they were raised with the same values.

The truth is, they all grew lax in their responsibilities because mom was so good at fulfilling hers. With hindsight, it becomes plain that the unspoken, implicit understanding that developed in her siblings, their spouses and extended families was that the old parents were mom’s responsibility alone. My parents had no plans of emigrating anywhere, and it seemed set in stone that my dad would continue in that job till he retired. So of course, mom was the logical candidate to care for her parents. Her siblings were happy to maintain that status quo, as it had negligible impact on their daily lives.

What changed then? To be continued….

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