Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The caretaker's dilemma

I have been thinking a lot about the issue of taking care of aging parents and the complexities of the situation.  We are the generation with one foot in the U.S (or any place else abroad) and one foot back home in India.  Some of us came here for our undergraduate studies, some for graduate school and some others for work.  Many decided to stay on after marriage, had children and established roots here.  I am writing from the perspective of someone who is going through the confusion of what is right when it comes to being the caretaker for an aging parent or parent-in-law.

MM wrote this post recently on how it is for her parents to come to the U.S. and being away from their home, their normal routines.  I also read this post by hiphopgrandma on the same topic.  Very interesting perspectives.  I am sure there are plenty of others with stories of their own regarding this issue.  I have written about this topic earlier as well.  I wrote that post nearly three years back.  By divine grace so far we have managed OK both with my mother and with my father-in-law.  My FIL got his green card and shunts between the two countries.  He spends some time with his daughter and then comes to stay with us and then heads back to India.

I feel very guilty when I see my FIL alone without my mother-in-law and having to stay with us for part of the year.  If she had been alive, they would have both coped with life here quite well.  They enjoyed their trips to the U.S. in the past.  So in that sense, they did not feel too displaced and were quite happy to be with their children.  My MIL was a very talented, sharp woman and she had tremendous inner strength as I saw it and from what I heard from all her relatives.  She could be put in any situation and she would adapt and cope and always had a calm temperament.  I might have had some issues with her had she also been living with us - like it would happen in any normal situation when people co exist - but I consider it a tremendous loss for me that she passed away.  At the same time, I am still glad that she did not suffer nor become a burden for my FIL to take care of her, even if her children were to be there for them.

I sometimes see my father-in-law turn off the TV and just sit quietly, thinking, and staring up at the wall.  It really breaks my heart.  He is a voracious reader - he reads plenty of books and reads the newspaper cover to cover.  He does plenty of Sudoku puzzles every day and he reads horoscopes that people email to me and I write back his comments to them.  But there are 24 hours in a day and there still are so many moments in a day when there is nothing to do.  How do you keep the same set of routines day after day without much social company? Unlike my father who could make friends with any one pretty much and have conversations for hours, my FIL is a quiet person and he talks a lot only if there is a common interest or if the person initiates the conversation.  He is a friendly person but not overly chatty.  He is not the kind to play with the children either.  An occasional ball catch, that's about it.

My FIL's situation of having to live here has cropped up only in the last three years since my FIL got his green card and ends up spending about 6 or 7 months in the U.S.  It is a very long stretch for him.  The situation so far has been manageable.  Ideally he would have been happy had we lived in Bangalore as well and he could have just continued on with his life.  But both his son (my husband) and daughter came to the U.S many years back when they were both healthy and active.  My husband came here for his graduate studies and then started working and then he got married to me.  For me, there is no "home" as such in India because my parents moved to the U.S many years back when I came here for college.  All my siblings are settled in the U.S.  My father is no more and my mom shunts between all her children.  She too is tired of visiting each one of us and feels the need to settle in one place.

I think about this situation and I wonder what the right thing to do would be.  My FIL has never once asked us to move back to India.  I am grateful to him for not sending us on guilt trips and for giving us the freedom to make that choice.  He is a traditional Indian parent and so the primary responsibility rests with the son.  Son yes, but the real care taking falls on the daughter-in-law.  More on that later.  When my husband was finishing high school and got admission into IIT, it was a matter of pride and joy for my in-laws.  They had never once even told him to apply to IIT nor put him in any classes for the entrance exams.  In some sense, I think the lack of pressure really helped.  He went on to finish his B.tech.  He got job offers from Indian firms and admission into a couple of IIM's.  But with the blissfulness of youth, he just applied to some universities here for graduate studies and decided that if he got a full scholarship, he would come.  And he did.  At that time too it was a matter of joy for my in-laws.  At that point no one in his immediate family had come to the U.S and so it was all very exciting.  Later when he got a job after his graduate studies, that too was greeted with joy.  He was putting off marriage and would not even look at the photos of girls that his mother would show to him (that's a side plot some of my blog pals already know about).  So suddenly one day when he announced to his parents that he had decided to marry me they were very happy about it.  His father was so thrilled giving out wedding invitations to even his old school teacher when he bumped into him on the way to some place.  At those different stages, no one thought about what all that would mean in their old age.  May be they did somewhere as a distant thought, but nothing immediate.  Things seemed right at that time when every one was happy in their little worlds.

Now things are different.  My mother-in-law passed away.  My father-in-law has had no choice but to get adapted to life without a companion.  But the reality is he has also had to deal with living alone in a world that is not his home.  And that is the hard part for him, for us.  What do we do in this situation? We have young children who are used to life here.  My whole family lives in the U.S. and I have no home base in India now.  Without my mother-in-law around, even my FIL's house does not feel like a home.  I did not grow up in that  city and I don't even relate to that place.  My husband is happy in his job here and has never worked in India and so there is that fear of adjusting to that work culture at this stage of life, especially when the prime projects happen here for his job and not in India.  KB is a very sensitive child and I am happy he is comfortable in his environment here.  He is prone to respiratory infections and I honestly dread the pollution both in Bangalore and in Chennai were to live there.  A windy day dust storm here triggers bronchitis for him.  KG is most likely to adjust to life easily there since she is pretty easy going and will eat anything.  Unlike KB who probably would have a very hard time adjusting to all the changes.  Neither me nor my husband have any siblings in India now.  Considering everything, at what point do you decide that you uproot yourself even if you feel a sense of belonging (even if it is not complete like it would have been had I never left India) in the place you are in?  When my father-in-law left couple of days back after staying here for some months, he told me that he enjoyed his stay here and he was very appreciative of my cooking for him etc.  I was grateful for those kind words from him.

I am not even considering a full time job because I know I cannot cope with handling two kids and taking care of my FIL.  Even my FIL himself remarks to me that he feels sad that with all this education in hand, I am pretty much doing domestic work all day long.  But I don't want the stress of work to transfer on to the kids.  At least not when they are this young.  Last time he was here, because of some health issues I had to take him to different doctor appointments about a dozen times in a matter of three months.  This trip, it was mostly dental issues. But still it had to be dealt with.  When he is here, I feel better in fact because I am on top of it when it comes to his health.  I try to give him the right kind of food even if it means cooking separately for us, for the kids and for him at times.  And here making appointments, contacting the pharmacy etc all involve phone time which I have very little of in the day since those sort of calls cannot be done casually when I am cooking or cleaning. I have to plan his doctor visits in the time I have between drop off and pick up for the kids and find time to cook the meals and buy groceries.  There is absolutely no family locally for me and so unless it is an emergency I don't ask my friends (who also have two kids) to help me out.  When he is here, I feel very guilty to take the kids out for full day trips because he doesn't enjoy being out the whole day and it is practically difficult because then I would have to plan and pack food for him for all his meals.  Because of his diet restrictions, I don't feel comfortable letting him eat salty/greasy food from outside.  Much as I hate having the TV on at most times during the day, because the children are around, I subscribed to all the tamil channels available and I try and keep the kids in the family room so they are not also glancing at the angry or sobbing faces in these TV serials.  I never make any plans to go out of town when he is with us because I don't feel comfortable adding that responsibility on who ever we visit...if it is just us, we can always order take out if the host is busy.  And the travel is tiring for him as well.  All this is to say that the adjustment is not just for the aging parent but very much so for the rest of the family as well.  Nine months in a year, I am taking care either of my mother or my FIL both of whom are of similar age and similar situations.  This is when it irks me when some people casually remark with a tone of one sided pity that he has to put up with life here because both his children are in the U.S.  No one thought about all this when things were hunky dory.  Now every one is deeply entrenched in their lives so it is difficult to up and go.  Be it daughter or son.  This is not to say that we won't do it if it really comes down to it.   Since B is at work and comes home past the kids dinner time, I pretty much have to keep both kids and FIL fed, happy, engaged.  Every one needs my attention.  When I am trying to have a conversation with my FIL, both kids have a hundred things to say to me.  B comes home from work and spends time with the kids until their bed time.  When finally at the end of the day we sit down on the couch, both of us are too tired to talk to each other.  B is fast asleep ten minutes after we sit down some days and it does lead to us fighting more than we need to for trivial things because the pressure builds up.  I am writing this in detail because people who are not faced with this situation don't often realize that the situation is complex and there are no ideal solutions.  You just learn to cope and make the best of it.  I feel happy for my FIL when he is packing to go back to India because I know how free and at home he must feel when he is in the home he has been in for the last twenty five years.  I really wish he didn't have to come here and live this boring life, filled with monotonous routines of meals, walks, TV and so on.  We all mean well for each other but it is not easy on any of us.  I try to do my best to make life comfortable for him when he is here.  I am sure I do fail in many ways especially from his perspective.  But we all learn to live with it.  I am not sure how much of my perspective about all this will change in my old age.  I just hope we retain good health at the very least so we can be on our own.  In the meanwhile, we all carry on with this balancing act.