Madeleine Robins

We Must All Hang Together…

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… or, assuredly, we will all hang separately.*

Being human is not for the faint of heart. Being a kid, being a teen, being an adult, a parent, the child of parents with health or memory issues. There is no age of being human that doesn’t come with challenges. Family helps. But family has changed over the centuries, and our idea of what family owes us (and what we owe our families) has changed too.

Time was, if you had children, they were raised to be part of a support system–doing increasingly complex chores, learning the family business or taking over tasks on the farm. My father and his siblings helped out with his father’s store in Brooklyn; 30 years later my grandmother was living with my aunt and uncle and their family; ten years later I (dimly) recall visiting her at a nursing home (she had Alzheimers). She was cared for within the family as long as possible.  In the same way, my mother’s mother wound up moving into an in-law apartment in my aunt’s home; eventually they knocked out the wall between her apartment and theirs, and she stayed at home through the rest of her life. 

But when the next generation–my father, and my in-laws–were getting older, they chose to move into tiered retirement communities–places where you start out in “independent living”, but may eventually move up to assisted care or nursing care. Part of their rationale was that they didn’t want to burden their kids with their care. Some of it, I suspect, was to preserve their autonomy. And perhaps some of it was to be in a community of their peers–smart, accomplished people who wanted to preserve their autonomy and didn’t want to burden their kids.

My kids are adults now. While my husband and I are not quite in the looking-for-a-place-to-retire-to demographic yet, the thought occurs: we don’t particularly want to burden our kids either. I have watched friends dealing with aging parents with serious health issues, dementia–and it wears them down. The thing is: they’re not part of an entire family engaged in taking care of a parent–they’re the one who somehow has been left with the care of an aged parent when the rest of the family can’t, or won’t help out. The parent may not be cooperative, let alone appreciative. Me: I tell my kids I’m planning to be the World’s Most Difficult Old Woman, but I don’t really want to be. And I don’t know who they’ll be–or what sort of support system they’ll have when we reach that point.

My friends, quite a lot of them actually, talk about all of us buying an island, or a town, to retire to. Because we’d all be SF geeks, or left-leaning types, or pop-culture nerds, and it would be like a life-long SF convention, right? It’s the logical extension of being surrounded by family of choice, rather than family of origin. The thing is, at some point one of us doddering geeks will need more help than other doddering geeks can provide. An intentional community of old folks needs caregivers, administrators, memory-care specialists, people who know what they are doing with an elderly population.

It’s not just old people who need support, or their kids who need support in supporting them. I read a piece from The Daily Beast the other day: Why Are America’s Postpartum Practices So Rough on New Mothers? It looks at the way we in this country treat childbirth: the sort of “here’s your hat, what’s yer hurry?” bum’s rush you get from the hospital, your job, sometimes even your family. Childbirth is grueling, exhausting, emotionally consuming… and then they send you home with the door prize and say “Good luck, kid!” I was really lucky: both my mother-in-law and my aunt showed up to cook and change diapers and even clean my refrigerator (!) after each of my kids were born. They encouraged me to sit around and mend and get to know my new human, rather than trying to be up and bustling. But by and large, that kind of “it takes a village” familial support is increasingly unusual.

Why is it unusual? We’re spread all across the country, for one thing. And as a society we don’t want to bother each other. If someone offers help, well, that’s nice, if maybe a little uncomfortable (I am world-class miserable at accepting help unless I’m at death’s door). But asking for it? Or worse: expecting it? Horrors. And if I expect something from someone, that means they might expect something from me, and I don’t know if I’ll be up to the task… Perhaps we have issues with our family, or maybe we’re more comfortable being a little isolated, and engaging with others is just scary.

In fact, we extend ourselves a million times a day, for our families, our friends, absolute strangers. They may be small extensions: holding open a door, saying thank you or I like your scarf or how’s that book? We make connections in small ways; it’s the idea of connecting in big ways thats intimidating. Maybe because we’re afraid that one person who extends herself will get used up, burnt out and resentful.

And that’s where the “we must all hang together” comes in. Life will continue to give each one of us reasons we need support. Every single bit of support we get makes us stronger. So does every bit of support we give.

*Benjamin Franklin, famous elder statesman. Or if you prefer, Howard da Silva in 1776. Take your pick.

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