A point parents like to point out is that the childfree will presumably have no one to take care of them when they’re older. My husband and I are taking precautions for this, starting our retirement savings early, and we plan to get long-term care insurance and whatnot, but it’s been frighteningly prevalent in the lives of my friends in the last couple weeks, as well as my own.
My father lost his job in August with a measly 2-week severance, which devastated my family. When it first happened, I rushed to loan them $3000 to cover their mortgage and expenses while they figured out what to do. They cashed in their retirement and have watched as my dad went from interview to interview in his very specialized field and was the second choice five times in a row. After a lifetime of smoking and drinking, he’s 56 going on 65, and my mother and I suspect it’s his ill health that’s led the employers to choose the other top candidate. They’ve used up most of their sad little retirement account paying off debt and are now looking at potentially losing their house.
My brother, a single father, is trying to make his life work for the first time in his life. Newly employed full-time and insured, he promptly set about breaking his wrist in a fall on the ice and is faced with two months out of work and losing his new apartment that he shares with my niece.
Add this to my recent layoff and, while I’m optimistic about my own situation, the gods have not been smiling upon my family lately.
I’m in a position where I have to look at how much help I can give to my parents. My husband and I are looking to buy a house before health issues force our frail old landlady into selling or worse, so we need to keep an eye on our own finances. I’m feeling horrible guilt about making my parents pay back the loan we gave them, but it came from my husband’s student loan and now we need it to pay his tuition for the Spring semester. It’s all very complicated and it’s killing me that I can’t help them financially without plunging us into the financial ruin that they’re all suffering from. I’m focusing on moral support and doing what I can – buying my mom some business books as she explores starting a home business, school clothes and supplies for my niece, loaning my brother his rent while he’s out of work with the expectation that he will pay me back when he gets his tax refund. But it’s a lot to take, and compared to some of my friends lately, I’ve got it easy.
Marlene’s father and my dad might be the same person, although her dad is more extreme and has a couple of years on mine. This terrifies me more than I can express. She’s in the unenviable position right now of caring for her very ill and incontinent father, whom she despises because of his years of abuse and alcoholism, for fear of being brought up on neglect charges by social services. She went from not speaking to him for years to being his in-home caregiver because she and her partner can’t afford to pay for caregivers. Every day she wishes she could just walk out, but because her father knows she can’t he abuses the privilege and threatens to call social services. Recently she and her partner bought a home, and now she’s on a leave of absence from work and facing real financial problems because her parents simply relied upon her to save them when she grew up. I look at what she’s dealing with, with parents about 10 years older than mine, and fear completely that it is what I, the financially responsible one, will be required to do if my father falls ill.
Almost a year ago to the day my friend Elena’s father passed away a couple weeks ago, he was given a year to live with a brain tumor. Her mother had been suffering mildly from dementia before he became ill and faded into the background as the family rallied around dad. Now that he’s gone, her mother has gone crazy. She lost her job because of her mental illness and now Elena, married only 5 years with a 3-year-old son, is facing buying a house her family can’t really afford so that her mother can move in with them. There’s simply no other choice; she’s her daughter and this is what daughters do.
It wouldn’t be so terrible if it were just a matter of her mother moving in, but her paranoia is out of control. Even Elena’s young son has started having nightmares and being scared of people who are coming through the windows, the front door, the closet, to steal him. They can’t leave him alone with Grandma, and it’s starting to seem that it’s unhealthy for him to even be around her because her paranoia is scaring him, and they don't know what else might be wrong in her brain. Plus, Grandma refuses to believe that Grandpa is gone and keeps confusing the child, who is having a hard enough time processing the concept of death. “My life is over. I’m not even 30 and my life is over,” Elena said to me. I was speechless. It’s such an impossible situation, and impossible choice to make. I didn’t know what to say to her except give her a hug.
Elena and Marlene’s parents are fortunate that their kids are there for them despite the unpleasantness. But no one would blame them if they said “I can’t handle this” and left their parents to their own devices, their situations are so terrible. I look at my own family and wonder where my limits will be; will I be willing to help my mom but not my father? How do you reconcile that? It was never a secret that Marlene didn’t get along with her dad, resented his drinking and the way he treated her mother, and instead of looking at the situation and seeing her as the saint that she is he makes accusations and makes her stay out of guilt. Even though I blame my dad’s health on his poor choices, could I ever not take care of him? I don’t think so, and I honestly can’t decide if that is guilt or love.
I don’t ever want someone to give up their life to care for me out of guilt. I never want to look at a person and think “I had you so you could take care of me when I’m old.”
My husband and I joke about driving off a cliff together when one of us gets very ill, but we know that’s not a likely scenario. I have such conflict about what my friends are going through, knowing that someday my parents will get older, and that one day my husband and I will get older. I think about how fortunate my parents are that they did many things right and have two kids who would take care of them, however reluctantly at times. (But seriously, how can it NOT be reluctantly?) And I do wonder about us not having that. I worry about it. A lot.
Especially in light of the recent goings on, it’s perhaps the most compelling argument for procreating I’ve seen. It’s not a good enough reason and it’s not the right reason, but it’s on my mind hardcore.