Generations split wide open

Last Updated 21 September 2012, 14:10 IST

With children relocating to other cities and countries in pursuit of careers, parents are alone and lonely in the evening of their lives. Children who stay back to take care of their parents are bitter about opportunities lost. Is there ahappy solution to the situation?Sangeeta Praveen finds out.

Recently, a friend of mine broke down because she had yelled at her sick mother. Khushi is 43 years old and lives in a metro with her children and husband. Her parents, both over 70, live in the same city but at the other end of town, and all her siblings have relocated abroad.

She visits her parents regularly and helps them in every way she can, but recently her mother fell ill and her parents had to shift to her place. She looked after them for close to a month before the outburst happened. She sobs, “I haven’t had even two hours of continuous sleep in the last three weeks. I love my parents and hate myself when I lose my cool, but I just can’t seem to help it. I have my hands full running my house and I am trying to be a responsible and loving daughter, but when she does not take the prescribed diet recommended by the doctor for days on end, I am completely at my wits end.”

We all know that the only constant is change. And change is something that creeps up on us so steadily and stealthily, that we don’t even register it until it has crossed from one end of the spectrum to the other! In this respect, compare  India’s social structure today with what it used to be, say fifty years ago. My maternal grandmother was bedridden for two years before she eventually passed away. She was looked after by her eldest son and daughter-in-law those two years.

They simply accepted the situation and never questioned it. They never accepted any help, physical or financial from even the other siblings. It was considered the “responsibility of the first born”.

Fifty years ago it was a rarity to know a family who had a child studying or working abroad. Today, relocating abroad is the rule rather than the exception. Educational aspirations are high and the standard of living has also increased. Moving towns, cities or countries for better prospects in education and career is now the norm. So, what happens to the older generation, staying on in home towns, as they get older and lonelier?

A few are lucky — they have their children living with them and the security derived from the knowledge that “there is somebody to take care of me” is tremendous. Sunny, gave up his job in Bahrain and returned to his home town in Kerala to look after his ailing parents. But the decision to move back is an extremely difficult one to take and there are always adjustment issues. Which is one of the many reasons for such a large number of the older generation living alone.

Pranav, who was in the Merchant Navy, gave up sailing at the age of 45 to stay at home because his wife could not manage two school going children and two ailing in-laws in his absence.

Today, Pranav is 62 years old. He confesses to feeling a strange sort of bitterness. He says, “I gave up sailing at the prime of my career and stayed at home. The first ten years went entirely on focussing on my parents and kids. Today, my father is no more and the kids have grown up and are leading their own lives elsewhere. My mother is 88 years old and my wife and I have never been on a holiday together. We were so busy taking care of everyone else that we lost sight of each other.”

Rani, a senior citizen, lives with her husband. All their three children have settled down in the US. She says wryly, “Ours is the generation that looked after our parents and also the generation that is looking after our grandchildren! Initially, when our kids invited us to their homes, we used to be very enthusiastic about visiting them.

But slowly we realised that our three-to-six-months stay invites to America were  because our kids needed us to look after their kids! While we love and cherish our time together with the grandchildren, we simply do not have the capacity anymore to work without domestic help, which is the situation in most households in the US. Today, we have learnt to decline invites to the USA and prefer to host our children and grandchildren at our own place.”

Wise move

Prabhakar, a sprightly septuagenarian foresaw this situation, and while he was in his fifties, booked himself a cottage in a township catering solely to senior citizens. Today, he lives there and is content. He says, “My children are all busy with their careers and families. My wife is not with me anymore. The township I live in has a mess from where I get my meals and I have made many friends since I started living here for the last seven years. I don’t even have to worry about medical assistance because there is a doctor on call 24 hours a day. I am not insecure, and while I do miss my children, I am happier with the knowledge that I am independent.”

Prasad who was working in Delhi, quit his job and moved to Chennai when he felt that his widowed mother needed him to be with her. At that time he was unmarried. He says, “I thought it was the best decision I was making, but somehow things went awry once I started living with her.

I started quarreling with her over trivial issues and I resented her for not appreciating the big sacrifice I had made for her sake. We never seemed to see eye to eye on anything until one day, a verbal explosion followed by some soul searching, made me realise that I was the one who made the decision to quit my job and move to where she was. She never asked me to, so how would she appreciate it? In fact, I barged into her life and upset her already set routine. Yes, she had some health issues but nothing life threatening and I jumped the gun by making those issues into something larger than what they really were. Once I realised my mistake, I moved out of her home but remained in Chennai. Today, we share a great relationship and I am much closer to her than I was when I was actually living with her!”

Prepare yourself

So, while the younger generation struggles with their feelings of inadequacy, guilt and helplessness at not being able to do more for their parents, they should also realise that sometimes all that the parents expect from them is a little more attention.

As Akhil says, “A couple of years after my wife died, my son and I somehow managed to re-establish a connect and today, he calls me almost every alternate day. While I miss having him and his family around, I look forward to his calls because I know that they are no longer cursory. He fills me in on little details like what his kids were up to and I derive great pleasure in listening to even mundane details like what he had for lunch. It makes me feel a part of his family and makes the loneliness abate.”

So, as health care standards improve and life expectancy grows, prepare for a phase in life when you are likely to be alone. Do not be bogged down by a feeling of neglect. Instead, embrace this phase and do all the things you’ve always wanted to do for yourself but never quite found the time or money to do. Primary amongst these things should be being physically and mentally active. Get back in touch with friends or go out and make new ones. Travel and see the country, if not the world, if you can, and are able to afford it.

For those of us who suddenly find ourselves in the role of care givers, just remember that sometimes all our parents want from us is ten minutes of our undivided attention. Give it wholeheartedly and make an effort to talk to them about their day, about their feelings, about their fears.

Do not pretend to listen. They can see through any kind of pretence in an instant. And if you feel like you have not done something which you should have done, then don’t hesitate to apologise. Just remember that they are our parents and their love for us is absolute and unconditional.

(Some names have been changed to protect privacy.)

(Published 21 September 2012, 14:10 IST)

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