The Agony of Being a Child With Parents Who Get Old

Catholics might find this New York Times story instructive in terms of the assumptions and vision on display in the secular brave (and brutal) new world.

‘Caring Hands’
‘Caring Hands’ (photo: Africa Studio / Shutterstock)

What are a grown child’s duties toward his elderly parents?

I know that “one-size-doesn’t-fit-all.” I recognize modern society has changed, with individuals atomized, families smaller and mobility everywhere. I acknowledge that, for better or worse, many roles in this regard previously filled by families are now done by government or the “health care industry.”

Yet I want to think that the notion of “filial piety” is more than just a trope in old Oriental B-movies.

The occasion of my ruminations is an article in The New York Times magazine about the challenges 30- and 20-somethings are facing caring for aging Boomer parents. I’ll admit: the title, “The Agony of Putting Your Life on Hold to Care for Your Parents” set my teeth on edge. Reading comments on the story (comments sections are eye-opening barometers of public thinking, at least of those loud enough to fill the public space) proved my blood pressure meds are very good.

The story focused on a single mother of two teens, in her 30s, who was ready to quit her government job to launch her own catering business when her father broke a leg and required her care. That leg fracture aggravated underlying cardiovascular issues, complicating his care regimen. The single mother is disappointed in her siblings and her father’s girlfriend, whose commitment to share in care was erratic, addressing only some of his needs. The tone of the story oscillates between how well the woman had planned her career transition — spreadsheets and all! — only to be upended by dad’s illness and how poorly the government is addressing the eldercare tsunami likely soon to envelope millennials from parents suffering from, among other things, longevity.

Nowhere does the story explore two other themes: the reciprocal obligations flowing from the parent-child relationship and the lifestyle “choices” two generations made which contribute to the current dilemma.

The article takes a relationship model of atomized individuals for granted. It doesn’t even broach the question of what duties flow from that unique bond, other than perhaps the accidental fact that it brings these two people together.

I flesh that out explicitly because I suspect many Catholics still have visions of filial piety rummaging around their heads. That quaint idea doesn’t even put in an appearance.

Forget about that First Reading from the Feast of the Holy Family:

My Son, be steadfast in honoring your father; do not grieve him as long as he lives. Even if his mind fails, be considerate of him; do not revile him because you are in your prime. Kindness to a father will not be forgotten; it will serve as a sin offering—it will take lasting root. In time of trouble, it will be recalled to your advantage, like warmth upon frost it will melt away your sins. Those who neglect their fathers are like blasphemers; those who provoke their mother are accursed by their Creator. (Sirach 3:12-16. The Reading omits vv. 15-16)

That passage is replete with ideas increasingly alien to modernity: normative family relations based on biological kinship; kindness; sin; the expiatory and redemptive value of suffering; Providence; accountability before him from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth takes its name (Ephesians 3:15).

The article also treats as taboo the question of the choices that shaped this family for two generations. The woman is a single mother, how so never explained (though she now has a trucker-boyfriend). The father apparently gets occasional visits from his “girlfriend,” but his wife divorced him and doesn’t feel many obligations toward her man with another woman.

The new math notwithstanding, one person cannot do the work of two. Normal families consisting of a father and a mother are better off on all social indices, including economics. They have a division of labor. They are there “in sickness and in health.” The glaring story in this story is that all families and all lifestyles are not created equal, yet that story is utterly ignored. (One commentator suggests those who might have benefitted from such intact families were “privileged.”) The storyline simply assumes that any ministrations previously provided by such families can but aren’t being assumed by hired cared providers and/or the government. Pardon, but a “son” or “daughter” is not synonymous with a “care provider,” nor does that difference lie in being “unhired.”

Moving past the article to comments was even more instructive. There was general sympathy for the single woman on whom most care duties devolved, something a normal human being should feel. Challenges are mushrooming and she’s being responsible for her father. I acknowledge that. But stopping at the level of feeling should not suspend deeper analysis. Otherwise, we look at symptoms while letting root causes multiply. Few commentators raised the issues I did above.

One commentator used the occasion to plug assisted suicide, having noted “my sisters and I shared the burdens of our mother’s last difficult year.” In this world of atomized individuals breathing a culture of death, there’s a mental symmetry: their mother’s difficult year gave her the option to “choose” abortion, and now the children’s difficult year seeks the choice of physician-facilitated death.

Another commentator reduced the problem to money. What are stupid parents thinking who fail to shore up their nursing home care by savings or long-term care policies? Failing to be “responsible,” they then want to wreck their kids’ careers? How dare they!

“Responsibility” took other flavors in this article, too. One commentator scored the father for making dumb choices, like not staying on his cardiac meds or driving in snowy weather. I guess dumb choices cancel reciprocity. Wonder if they would have said the same if daddy had (and I’m glad he didn’t) tell his pregnant single daughter, “go in peace, stay warm and be well” (James 2:14).

The illusion of constant independence and “autonomy” filled still others, usually leading down the suicide or do not resuscitate lanes, but also reshaping a vision of the parent-child relationship to negate filial piety (which was often redefined as parental “selfishness”). In response to the objection that your parents cared for you, a commentator argued that the situations were not reciprocal because parents caring for little children lead them towards independence, whereas children caring for elderly parents are forced to reckon with ever-growing dependence.

The Times no doubt ran this feature to highlight the personal challenges eldercare poses in a country whose demographic pyramid is upside down. Catholics, however, might also find the story instructive in terms of the assumptions and vision on display in the secular brave (and brutal) new world aborning.