Wasted resources, missed out roles

When I was sixteen years old, I got admission in an engineering college and ended up joining a class where I was the only female. This was back when people did not even know that women were “allowed” to become engineers, and just about everybody who talked to me about it was critical about my “wasting” a seat that a boy could have taken and become an engineer (all except fellow female batch-mates and my parents and a few of their very close friends).

Relatives told me the course would be too tough. One cousin who was studying engineering told me that I would never be able to do “workshop”. And just about everyone told me I was wasting a seat, I was wasting the nation’s money, the taxpayer’s money, because after all I was a woman and I would never take up a job, and even if I could, I would leave it for my “family” later, and for bringing up my kids. I was told again and again that I should quit the seat so that a “deserving” boy could become an engineer instead.

In my class I encountered two species of classmates; one, the silent ones who never said anything, so I never knew whether they were hostile about me or just cowed down by the second species, and two, the hostile ones who reminded me that being a female I was incompetent and also wasting a seat.

Now I can use this post to write about many things that have happened since.

I could write about how many of my engineer classmates went on to sell soap and colas or read balance sheets in banks, careers which possibly don’t need knowledge of Fourier Transforms or resistor color codes. Or I could point out that many chose to be part of the “brain drain” in the days when leaving the country was considered unpatriotic (but of course, now pravasi bharatiyas welcomed back open-armed, because times do change, and society does become more mature and open). Then again, amusingly, some ex-classmates are sending their daughters to IIT coaching classes, and I doubt if they remember how hostile they were towards the female engineers when they were students.

Hey, I could even write about how unfair it felt at “sweet” sixteen to be viewed as a potential housewife (housewives became “homemakers” decades later) and a potential mother and not as someone able to contribute using the brain. It also induced suffocation about my future.

But strangely, it is another angle that strikes me when I look anew at the past.

What strikes me now is that, in all those comments about how I would give up my job when I had a child to bring up, people were clearly recognizing child-rearing as a task that needs intense work and attention.

But no one talked that way about the intense work and attention that goes into tending to humans at the other end of the life curve.

No one ever told me, for example, that I would be wasting national taxpayer money when I quit my job to tend my parents. No one said, you will end up doing so when you are at the peak of your career, young enough to be productive, yet experienced enough to really add value to the field you are in, so everything everyone has invested in you will go waste. No one recognized the elder care work, the role, the criticality of the role.

I wonder why.

Again and again, I am puzzled at how a society that prides itself on its respect for elders and the need for families to rally for their care does not register that if such care has to be given, it has to be planned for, factored into life choices, and so on.

I meet caregiver after caregiver who has abandoned or reduced work when at the peak of their professional career to take on this task, but I do not hear any talk about lost taxpayer money, lost national resources, lost managerial potential because these persons are now performing a different function from what they trained for (or for which they studied in colleges subsidized by taxpayer money). When caregiving costs are computed, the family caregiver (male or female, but usually assumed to be female) is not costed even at the दिहाडी (daily wage rate) of an unskilled laborer, let alone costed at what a paid attendant could have demanded for that work. (This is like the problem faced while looking at the economic value of homemakers). And let us just forget about anyone looking at opportunity costs of caregivers who quit the workforce…

At least, let us find a nice, respectable word like “homemakers” for those taking on a fulltime care role to tend to ailing elders 🙂

More seriously, one problem of not recognizing the economic value and opportunity cost is that nothing gets done to find ways to minimize this loss.

Look at how childcare is treated. We have books on just about every aspect of it, heaps of them. Offices and factories are supposed to (and some actually do) have crèches to support mothers who want to work; there are plenty of play-schools that take in very young kids, and while the standards of some are deplorable, at least the attempt is there. And, of course, society accepts the system of travelling multiple-entry visa grandparents who move from one child’s home to another to support the various pregnancies, childbirths, young years. All these are not completely adequate, but they are attempts to help an acknowledged need.

Maybe, if eldercare was as acknowledged and respected we’d have better books available for elders (on coping with practical problems of ageing, like urinary incontinence) and also better books for their caregivers. We might have centers where elders can spend their day in a safe and supportive environment even if they are partly dependent, instead of having only enrichment centers for the healthy and mobile elders. Maybe there would be better schemes to let the supporting family members stay connected with peers and also carry on their careers; things are better today than they were a decade ago when people looking after elders had no option but to quit their careers, but I think there’s a long way to go yet.

Yet, on another note, I am not sure anyone wants to think of these issues. I think even thinking of them is seen as disrespect or negativity towards elders. But denial does not help build a supportive infrastructure that works optimally for everyone concerned.

I cannot imagine how I’d have felt, though, if at the age of 16 I’d been told that I was wasting taxpayer money because I’d end up quitting work when I was a middle-level manager to look after ailing elders.

Back then, I did know that children are born and they bawl for milk and get colic and need potty training and then help with homework and tests, and while I hated those sort of “you will give up work when you have kids” comments, I at least understood what people meant.

On the other hand, I didn’t even know elders could ever need care or support.

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About Swapna Kishore
I'm a writer, blogger, and resource person for dementia/ caregiving in India. I have also been a dementia caregiver for well over a decade, and am deeply concerned about dementia care in India; on this blog I share my personal caregiving journey, my experiences as a resource person for dementia care, and musings on life, aging, dementia in India, and such sundries. More about me and the work I do for dementia care. For structured information on dementia, for discussions, tools and tips on caregiving issues, for resources in India, and for caregiver interviews, please check my website http://dementiacarenotes.in (or its Hindi version, http://dementiahindi.com). For videos on dementia caregiving (English and Hindi), check the youtube channel here.

2 Responses to Wasted resources, missed out roles

  1. Shashie says:

    I’m becoming a cabbage, living 24/7 with dad. I miss interacting with my peers and also mentallystimulating conversation, and even to get a month without challenges. To go to sleep and get up as a freeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee human. I love dad, don’t get me wrong, but….

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