Eldercare: The Forgotten Feminist Issue.

(This was written late last year; I pitched it a few places but received little interest. I’m posting it here because, well, it’s an important conversation.)

One of my favorite pictures of my mom.

Mom, back in the day.

 

As I write this my mother is fast asleep in a nursing home, her third stint in 15 months. It is a heartbreaking thing, watching your parent slowly succumb to her mortality. You try to prepare yourself for the call you’ll get in the middle of the night from a nurse reluctant to give you the news you’ve been dreading for years. But no amount of preparation will ready you for that call. No amount of alcohol will lessen the pain. Even writing about it is hard because it forces you to deal with an absolute, inescapable truth. She is dying, and you are powerless to stop it.

The woman I now visit several times a week is not the woman I knew five years ago, or even three years ago, when she bounded into my maternity suite with her walker, perching herself on the sofa while ordering my husband around. She is an entirely different creature, one who will ask me the same question in a five-minute span, one who is petulant and stubborn and scared. She is not the Joan who raised me, and it is difficult to reconcile this version with the one I knew. The one I miss. I watch my other friends in envy as they travel the world with their healthy, able-bodied parents, as those parents gift them with cars and weddings, top-shelf appliances and Maclaren strollers.

As a junior member of the Sandwich Generation, I’ve been my mother’s primary caregiver for the last several years, a responsibility passed on to me when my brother and his wife retired to Phoenix. A changing of the guard, so to speak, because they’d spent over 20 years juggling full-time jobs, mortgage payments and ailing elders. Statistics will tell you that the average Sandwicher is older, whiter and affluent, which makes my case somewhat unique (I suppose) because I am none of those things. Earlier this year, when my husband was laid off after 14 years of what should be considered indentured servitude, our financial situation went from “meh, it could be worse” to “oh, this is what abject poverty feels like.” If money wasn’t going to toddler care, it was going to one (or both) of our mothers.

But what I’m doing now is no different from what my brother was doing ten years ago, no different from what our mother was doing over 20 years ago when she moved my grandmother into our spartan three-bedroom apartment on Chicago’s south side. In fact, my situation isn’t a unique one at all, because growing up I was surrounded by women who lived as we did; three-to-four generations sharing 800 square-feet. For most poor/working-class single women of color, this is a familiar, albeit depressing, narrative. My mother was raising a 12 year-old and a 67 year-old on barmaid’s wages and public assistance. Her friend Mona was using her barmaid’s wages to provide for her college-bound son and a mother in a nursing home. Another friend, Sally, was raising a gaggle of kids and grandkids on Sunday dinners she’d sell from her window. Though they all made it work, there were doubtless physical and emotional strains that would manifest in the years to come.

As much as we love to pathologize the black inner-city experience, there was—is—a love that is real. Present. Corporeal. Etched in frown lines and callused hands. Displayed by women whose sense of love and obligation pushed them to their limits. According to this study on cultural diversity and caregiving, African-American caregivers had lower levels of caregiver burden and depression than their white counterparts. Given that depression is fairly underreported in the black community, I find this hard to believe. While some reports show Americans being generally averse to elder caregiving, others show just how ingrained it is in the black community, mainly because we cannot afford it. And we’re less likely to entrust the care of our Willa Maes to state institutions or private facilities because of the increasing number of abuse cases.

As writer Jane Glenn Haas pointed out, eldercare isn’t sexy enough to be a feminist issue. It lacks the naughty allure of reproductive rights, the seductive appeal of body image. It doesn’t even have a sassy Lean In-like catchphrase. But it should be a feminist issue, since the numbers show that women are most likely to shoulder the responsibility of looking after parents in their twilight years, and the most likely to live well into those twilight years. A lot of them have missed out on career and educational opportunities. A lot of them—like my mother and her friends—are doing this by the skin of their teeth, with scant to nonexistent resources. A lot of them will outlive their spouses (if they have them), exhaust their pensions (if they have them), and die alone.

All of this begs a stronger push for policy changes that no longer penalize women for making the choice to care for their elders, a push for making more resources available to help them. Innovative programs like CAPABLE can not only ease the burden of caregivers, but empower the senior citizens who need the care and improve their quality of life. But in order for this country to realize the importance of this issue, we need more voices—big and small—to amplify it.

101 thoughts on “Eldercare: The Forgotten Feminist Issue.

  1. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed. This is a very important concern that needs to be a big part of our feminist conversation. Most caregivers are women and most of the surviving spouses, who would otherwise age alone, are also women. Thank you for the post.

  2. The power and truth contained in your words are painfully awesome. Such a vivid picture of what I experienced made me step away from this post and come back and read the remainder for your collection of words have struck a chord with me. I have been there and it’s the part of life there is no manual, no real guidance but you have to take it as it comes. Thank you for placing your honesty and truth on pages.

  3. Congrats on being FP’d and for raising awareness to this matter, that although not sexy certainly needs to be discussed and given as much emphasis as feminist issues of old.

  4. I worked at an assisted living facility for two years, and it was one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had. Those people are 80+ and still independent to a certain degree, but watching them make the inevitable shift from independence to nursing home to death is absolutely heartbreaking. This is most definitely a feminist issue. Thank you for sharing your story and bringing a different side of feminism to the table.

  5. This was a really great piece. This issue is worldwide. I know personally in Nigeria women who are in this situation and in the UK. To be honest, elderly care is quite a neglected issue. Thank you for writing this entry

  6. Well written. My heart goes out to you and the entire community of women who shoulder burdens like to everyday with hope of making ends meet. If it isn’t a feminist issue, it should be.

  7. This is a very powerful post. And this is my third, now fourth, attempt at articulating a response. I think I’ll just have to say it resonated very deeply .

  8. This is a lost issue. Definitely needs to be in the mainstream. I have 2 sons and I often wonder who is going to care for me someday when I need it? I am going to share this.

  9. Making more resources available means supporting more taxation for taxed enough. NO.

    Make do with less or have family members taking shifts to care for your family members.

    • What?! Did you even read this post? Or any of the replies to it? People are strapped and strung out from the weight of trying to balance too many conflicting responsibilities on too few resources. “Just try harder” isn’t cutting it. “Trying harder” doesn’t increase the hours in a day, it doesn’t reduce the miles of travel, it doesn’t magically materialize family members that don’t exist (or bring others back to life), it doesn’t make the needs of children disappear when elders need assistance, it doesn’t create paid time off from work or make income magically appear from a source other than work, it doesn’t reduce the cost of groceries (rent, gasoline, utilities, etc.) when other expenses increase, it doesn’t change insurance policies about who is covered for what where and when, it sure the hell does not resurrect jobs in dying rust belt communities. “Just try harder” did nothing but make me exhausted, more broke, and guilty that I couldn’t do more.

      And really, really angry that THIS is the societal answer: screw you, you’re on your own. Because “taxes”. Because you and yours are the throwaways whose only purpose in life is to bust your asses so others can profit. And when you can’t anymore? Hurry up and die. Aren’t you dead yet?

      Tell ya what. Fuck you and fuck your taxes. We deserve better.

  10. Thank you for this piece. I am in the same caregiving situation with my 89 year old mother, who has been living with me since 2006 – give or take 6 -9 months at my sibling’s (who, btw, are the most supportive ever but don’t have to deal with the day to day events). No nursing home for us. In spite of paid caregiving in our house, I had to resign from my job. I’m just afraid now of the whole situation having an effect on my own health.
    So, literally, I feel your pain

  11. This is a conversation that needs to take place, sooner than later. I am the Director, Council on Aging for my small town in Massachusetts and my days are filled with women who are caring for their mothers who are failing in so many ways. I was unaware of the CAPABLE Program, but we are just starting to explore a handyman type of program to help with home maintenance and also making homes safe. Thank you, and all the best to you as you support your mother’s journey.

  12. Beautiful … And true. Thank you for writing this.

    My late 70’s Mother is helping her late 70’s Sister-in-law and I’m here, now, hoping to help both of them. My brother & his wife have been with our Mom all these years. It’s my turn…

  13. This is so sad and true. I live in Asia, where BOTH genders are EXPECTED to care for parents. Many are shocked to hear about nursing homes and state facilities and ask me, “But what about the children? Aren’t children supposed to take care of their parents?” They even think I’m “neglecting” my duty for living here and not close to my parents, but they say it’s okay when I say I have two sisters doing that. We do take care of my husband’s parents and his mother even lives with us.

  14. thank you for this. I did this for 18 years with various relatives ending with my mother’s passing. As the youngest unmarried female, I did it while working a full-time job, with VERY little help (people always found excuses NOT to show up when it was their time to spend the assigned nights they’d lied to a caseworker that they could handle) and NO money. And yes as in African-American tradition, I wasn’t gonna put them in a home. But that mindset is changing. Home care is the humane way to go, then hospice if necessary. The ass in a previous post who bitched about taxes (don’t know what article they were reading) clearly has NEVER cared for sickly, dying people and clearly has that Westward Ho, the Wagons/Manifest Destiny bullshit ethic going on. Hell, those pioneers did not even do it alone. They traveled in WAGON TRAINS! I came through it and don’t regret doing it (really had no choice) but do wish I would have had more help and more funds. My gift was knowing that my mother and the others I cared for knew I loved them and would be there for them no matter what. Yes, this is the un-glamorous issue in feminism. My wish now? To not linger when ill and to go swiftly.

  15. […] Eldercare: The Forgotten Feminist Issue. As writer Jane Glenn Haas pointed out, eldercare isn’t sexy enough to be a feminist issue. It lacks the naughty allure of reproductive rights, the seductive appeal of body image. It doesn’t even have a sassy Lean In-like catchphrase. But it should be a feminist issue, since the numbers show that women are most likely to shoulder the responsibility of looking after parents in their twilight years, and the most likely to live well into those twilight years. A lot of them have missed out on career and educational opportunities. A lot of them—like my mother and her friends—are doing this by the skin of their teeth, with scant to nonexistent resources. A lot of them will outlive their spouses (if they have them), exhaust their pensions (if they have them), and die alone. […]

  16. I think the first step is to recognise the need and get educated on every possible assistance program that exists. I work in the field of home care and some of the worst situations happen to people who thought their lives were never going to change, and who refused to educate themselves on the changes around them and what is available in each case. Also, there should be more voices like yours that bring attention to the Sandwich generation and the difficult task of taking care of our elderly. An enormous amount of people are caretakers who need to be informed, aware and supported in their thankless and unpaid jobs.

  17. Thank you for these words! So sad to grow old. I am taking care of my 95 year old mother and there are many days when she doesn’t even know I am her son.

  18. Absolutely! There needs to be some grassroots reshuffling of what is happening in this country in regards to women , to health care. Our populations are not getting more well as years pass as we are being told. One only needs to look at the Social Security Disability system to understand that. There has to be some kind of sensible way for children to care for their parents without ending up in poverty or without their parents ending up with subpar healthcare. The fact that women are still making less than men and yet often shoulder the elder care responsibility is one clear reason why this issue MUST come to the forefront- as you point out these women often are caring for their children as well.
    Thank you for your wisdom.

  19. Thank you for a wonderful blog. I am going to share it in my new blog Create & Be Well.

    http://www,createandbewell.com

    Does the nursing home your mother is in use music with their patients. Music and Memory is one of the most important new programs developed for elders with various forms of dementia.

  20. Beautiful. In a way, I can certainly identify. Although I have not had the experience of elder care. The experience of caring for a seriously ill spouse is much the same. Thank you for writing this.

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