Taking care of them, we believe, is one of our cardinal duties. In reality though, this burden has always fallen on women. Daughters-in-law took care of their parents-in-law. Daughters also assume this responsibility in some circumstances. My maternal grandmother who lived for about 100 years was cared for by her daughter-in-law until her last day. This was the experience of many families.
A few weeks ago, Dr. David Goodall, a highly-regarded botanist traveled from his native Australia to end his life in Basel, Switzerland. He was 104 years old and was considered to be the oldest scientist in the world. Australia does not allow voluntary euthanasia. He was not suffering from any cognitive dysfunction or serious ailments but he complained that in the past one year, he could no longer enjoy the things he liked to do. His daughter, a clinical psychologist, said he could not work the way he used to. He was described as very independent and in recent years, he edited a 30-volume book series in his field. There was a lot of media attention as he prepared for his last journey, but one thing caught my attention. He fell in his apartment a few months ago and was not found for two days! Dr. Goodall, an award-winning scientist, was a father and grandfather. He also had colleagues and neighbours. Even though his age peers were probably all dead, he must have generations of younger friends, colleagues, and mentees. Yet, no one checked on him for two days.
This story on the face of it looks extreme but on a closer look highlights the problem of old age in modern times. Old age in our society is highly desired. We venerate our elders. They are the custodians of our history, heritage, knowledge and wisdom. In our pre-literate societies which depended on oral traditions, their institutional memory of how society worked was necessary for the education of younger generations. In fact, one of the most feared curses on a young person disrespecting an elder is that such a person won’t grow old. A naming ceremony will not be complete without supplications for old age on behalf of the new-born, but our society is in transition. I could see the difference between my grandmothers’ old age and my parents’. Migration is changing the traditional arrangements that made old age a normal and natural continuum in the circle of life. My parents lived their lives in the same town as their parents. This proximity allowed them to carry out their full responsibilities in caring for their mothers in old age. With my parents, my siblings and I have migrated to live abroad or in cities all over Nigeria. Most importantly, the role of women has changed with regards to caring for the elderly. Women were and still are the caregivers for old people.
In the distant past, different societies treated their old in ways that we might find shocking. Some societies practiced senicide, the murder of the elderly. The Inuits, also known as Eskimos in Northern Alaska, used to put their elderly on ice floes and push them out to sea to die of hunger and exposure. When resources were scarce, they would rather divert food and clothing to caring for the young and healthy. A long time ago in rural Japan, sons took their elderly parents to the top of a holy mountain and abandoned them there to die. The Bactrians of northern Afghanistan fed their elders to specially-trained dogs.
Mercifully, we have always regarded our elders as our potential ancestors to whom we are still connected after they’ve departed this world. Taking care of them, we believe, is one of our cardinal duties. In reality though, this burden has always fallen on women. Daughters-in-law took care of their parents-in-law. Daughters also assume this responsibility in some circumstances. My maternal grandmother who lived for about 100 years was cared for by her daughter-in-law until her last day. This was the experience of many families.
When I arrived in the United States a few decades ago, I quickly learnt that old age is seen as undesirable. There is no particular respect or consideration shown to old people in America. Youth is constantly celebrated and aging celebrities with their sagging skin will stuff their bodies into tight clothes and undergo numerous plastic surgery to beat back time and mimic youth. Visiting nursing homes in America is a depressing affair. Since everything revolves around money, those who have it are taken to comfortable nursing homes by their relatives and those who have less are warehoused in homes where they wait to die. Those places are sterile and devoid of any meaningful human stimulation. Old people could be seen sitting in front of televisions in a common room, with absent look on their faces, if they are taken out of their rooms at all. Caregivers in these places are mostly immigrants who have no emotional attachment or shared history with the elderly in their care. It is a just a job, which they do as best as they could with the little remunerations paid for those kinds of jobs. Many elderly are completely abandoned by their children and families in such places.
There had been at least a few harrowing tales of retired elderly Nigerian professors, divorced or widowed, who live in abject misery alone in old age here in America. Others try to return home to take advantage of the in-built traditional care at home. Extended family, housemaids, and community members are still regarded as support and cushion for old age.
That Dr. Goodall, a man sound of mind and in fairly good health chose to end his life reflects his values and that of his society. While work is very important, invariably it is the solid and loving human relationships we cultivate that matter most. To be healthy physically and emotionally, we need these relationships, even more so at the sunset of our lives. There was still a lot Dr. Goodall could give the world but he defined his life solely by his professional contributions. A person who had lived for over a hundred years had seen a lot and therefore has much wisdom to share with the world. The values of our society are a little bit different as people still believe “eniyan laso mi”, meaning: people are my clothing; that my well-being, my identity, my humanity depends on the relationships in my life.
However, this ideal is being tested in the new old age as women these days do not necessarily consider the care of their in-laws as their duty. Even when children live in Nigeria, daughters-in-law may chaff at taking care of their elderly in-laws which invariably causes tension in the marriage. When elderly parents get sick or can no longer care for themselves, the responsibility of who should take care of them now gets debated by siblings. Some resort to self-serving arguments asking the first child to do it; others use gendered reasoning, asking the male or female children to do it. My father suffered Parkinson disease for a long time and I heard a sibling musing that he would gladly choose euthanasia to end his suffering. There was no talk of his wife taking care of our father.
There are sporadic discussions about growing old in Diaspora. There had been at least a few harrowing tales of retired elderly Nigerian professors, divorced or widowed, who live in abject misery alone in old age here in America. Others try to return home to take advantage of the in-built traditional care at home. Extended family, housemaids, and community members are still regarded as support and cushion for old age. Before my mother passed a few years ago, she was immobile in her later years. She lived in the same house where she lived her married life. None of my siblings could host her and she was adamant about not coming to America. A paid caregiver was hired to take care of her. From my observations and of friends who visited her without announcement, it was evident she was taken care of very well. However, like the elderly here who are taken care of by paid immigrants, she too was deprived of human stimulation and interactions because most of the day she was by herself. While her own mother in old age enjoyed the loving and boisterous comings and goings of family and community members, the transition in society made that impossible during her own old age. Grandchildren lived in the cities and did not have the same attachment to her that we had to my grandmother. People might stop by occasionally, but she mostly sat all day by herself, either reading the Bible or listening to the deafening silence of a once busy household.
Years ago, I volunteered with an organisation in Boston, Massachusetts that paired people with lonely elders. I was paired with an elderly Jewish woman who emigrated from Poland decades earlier. I visited her every Saturday. I would drive her to do her shopping or we would walk around the neighborhood, if she could manage it. She introduced me to new stores and plied me with chocolate, which she loved very much. She also shared her stories, mostly the stories of her youth growing up as a Jewish girl in Poland. She had a son in the Boston area who cared for her but she lived alone because she and his wife did not get along. My visits relieved a lot of loneliness. I eventually introduced my family to her and we adopted her as our own. No such service was available to assuage my mother’s loneliness because our society is in transition and has not organised a new paradigm for elder care. The problem itself is yet to be recognised or articulated.
Whether you live in Nigeria or abroad, the paradigm has shifted for old age care and for those of us in the upper middle age, this is the time to start the conversation. Elder abuse by caretakers or unscrupulous children preying on their parents’ financial resources are serious issues to consider. Loneliness is growing to be an added problem of old age.
The loneliness of the new old age in the Diaspora is something the general population struggles with, more so immigrant families. Our nuclear family is the centre of life, and that could be very lonely indeed. Many grandmothers who come to live with their children here help to take care of grandchildren, but loneliness stalks them too. Their children go to work for most of the day and the grandchildren go to school, leaving them to cope with staying at home alone for long hours. On a visit home to an Oyo North town years ago, I met an older woman who had once lived in the United States, sitting in her shop. We got into a conversation and she said she used to live in Atlanta with her daughter and her family in a gated community. It was a big house with all creature comforts in a well-planned and safe neighbourhood, with people of the same privileged socio-economic status as neighbours. But she was home alone most of the day and it became unbearable. She came back to her town where water and electricity was not stable, but it had the most important asset to her, people. She was a part of a caring community.
Support for parents in old age by children is not a part of American culture. Immigrants from Asia and Africa might expect this from their children, but it is not a given as the children raised here generally are acculturated in American norms. It is not clear how much Diaspora people reflect on these matters as we approach old age. Americans have a saying that old age is not for sissies. Indeed, the new old age coming will be a test of all our cultural assumptions and the foresight we have in planning for it. With children alienated from old cultural mores and with limited financial resources, many of us are facing a dire old age. While Dr. Goodall’s fate may look grim, what will befall some of us may be grimmer. At least, he lived to a very ripe old age in good health and chose the time, place and method of dying. He ate his favourite food and listened to one of his old favourite tunes, “Ode To Joy” by Beethoven. One could assume he died as joyfully as anyone could in spite of the hemlock choice.
Our American children might end up bundling those of us with limited financial resources to the nursing warehouses and wait for us to die. With no guilt. I’ve seen it happen to Americans, a caring and loving mother, abandoned in the nursing home by her two sons until she died. The wealthy ones among us might live in the upscale planned communities costing a fortune every month, hoping the money won’t run out before death comes, and leaving little or no inheritance for descendants. It can, and will, happen to us unless we do proactive imaginative thinking and planning. Whether you live in Nigeria or abroad, the paradigm has shifted for old age care and for those of us in the upper middle age, this is the time to start the conversation. Elder abuse by caretakers or unscrupulous children preying on their parents’ financial resources are serious issues to consider. Loneliness is growing to be an added problem of old age.
Bunmi Fatoye-Matory was educated at the Universities of Ife and Ibadan, and Harvard University. She lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina. She is a Writer and Culture Advocate. Email: email@example.com