(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.)
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.