As a college administrator, I welcomed questions from international students regarding cultural or social matters they did not understand. I will never forget the day a student came to my office searching for understanding on something he had seen over the weekend.
“I went to a building to wash my clothes.” He said. Realizing he went off campus I said, “Ah, you were at the laundromat.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” He paused. “But, I didn’t understand why an elderly man and woman were there washing their clothes.”
He sat staring steadfast at my face, waiting for my response.
“Well, it is not unusual for an elderly couple to go to a laundromat. Maybe they don’t have a washer and dryer in their home, or maybe they do, but their machines are broken.”
The student continued to stare at my face, searching for the right words to express his real question.
“But, why were they alone? I mean, why wasn’t a younger family member doing the washing for them? In my country, an elderly member would never be doing such work. Where was their family?”
I stared at my student wanting to say, “American’s believe in living apart. We call it independence. Clearly, our family structure is in need of improvement.”
But, I provided him with a very long, social explanation – one that supported the idea of individuality. In the end, he said, “The idea of family mobility seems to have problems.”
As a young woman I couldn’t wait to leave the sleepy town I was raised in, and when I started my family I lived some distance away. The idea of my parents selling their home to join us was not a concept. They would never give up their independence.
When my parents entered their seventies, being geographically afar, I couldn’t see the decline that was descending upon them. After Mom was hospitalized, she asked me to go the house to retrieve a few items. Entering the kitchen, I was struck with immediate sadness. I couldn’t believe this was the same home I had visited just a few months before. The bustling occupants who once took care of every nook and cranny, had been replaced by shuffling inhabitants struggling to make small tasty meals, and managing incontinence.
Recalling the many conversations I had with Mom, asking if she and Dad would consider living with us, or if she needed a home health aide – any help at all. With a strong voice, her response was always the same, “We are alright.” Not wanting to upset her, I never pushed the issue. They had neighbors who checked in on them, so I thought she was telling me the truth. Clearly, I missed the signs.
An elderly friend once told me, every decade she aged, she felt a huge difference. Turning 50 was not so different in retrospect, but when she went from 60 to 70, and then 70 to 80, the changes were immense. If you live afar from your aging loved ones, maybe it is time to get closer.