Platitudes, shame-and-blame games, and avoidance of introspection on complex causes

I’m concerned at the way some persons associated with the field of elder/ dementia care spout platitudes and stereotypical blame/ judgments in public and social media forums. I know these people mean well, but from what I understand, such statements don’t convey anything new or useful. Worse, they may harm the situation, for example, they alienate many family caregivers who feel defensive and may hesitate to ask for information and help, assuming they will not be understood and will just be criticized as persons who lack sufficient love, duty, or culture.

I hope my statements in this blog don’t offend anyone; I am merely sharing my thoughts and opinion as a possible area to ponder on. Let me explain my concern.

Let me take platitudes first. I think platitudes are simplistic but often considered so correct and profound that they stop people from clear thinking or deeper investigation into possible causes and solutions. They have a preachy “you should” in them, but nothing helpful in the form of suggestions on related “this is how you can”. And because they are simple one-liners, they ignore many relevant aspects that affect relationships and care.

Take, for example, statements like “our parents sacrificed everything for us,” and “our parents gave us love, we should love them” or “our culture respects elders” or “we must always make our parents happy.” I’ve yet to meet anyone who disagrees with them, at least publicly. Prima facie, these seem good and moral and cultured. More important, it seems like all we need to do is love and respect and care for our parents like any good person should, and there would be no problem at all.

The reality is far more complex, both in terms of the complicated family relationships and in terms of the difficulties adult children face while handling multiple responsibilities and making compromises and choices.

Let me take just one aspect to elaborate–an implicit assumption that anyone, just by virtue of crossing an age threshold and having a child, is an unquestionable model of great parenting and selfless love.

Many of us in India have recently viewed a series on TV that talked openly of some problems usually swept under the carpet–things like female foeticide, dowry harassment and related violence/ killing, parents forcing children to marry, sexual abuse of children by elders and guardians, domestic violence. Who does these acts? Are there no elders amongst the perpetrators? And do they all die before they cross the age of sixty? The TV program provided alarming data and statistics regarding the prevalence of these problems. Though the show audience looked surprised when the data was presented, I’m willing to bet that most of them were well aware of these problems, and have seen them in their immediate family/ social circles, or even experienced them personally.

It is factually wrong to assume that every elderly parent has always been loving and considerate and sacrificing. The exceptions to this “ideal” picture are not miniscule and cannot be ignored. So if we are really concerned about care for all types of elders, we must openly acknowledge the possibility that some adults who are now caregivers were abused and bullied as children by the very persons they are now expected to look after. Such platitudes negate the experience of abused caregivers, isolate them, and deny them a supportive environment and tools.

Consider, also, the shame-and-blame games around any situation where caregiving is concerned. The default assumption, for example, that the daughter-in-law is (somehow) to blame. Or the son is the culprit (most probably because the evil daughter-in-law twisted him and corrupted him).

I’m always amazed at the amount of anger that both men and women spew on sons and daughters-in-law.

Given that all men are sons, and that the vast majority of women will marry and thus become daughters-in-law, there is no advantage of a belief that all evil stems from these persons. For example, this does not narrow down a profile of potential wrong-doers for any practical purpose.

Remember, too, that daughters-in-law often face the rough edge even when then enter the “new” house, where they are always suspect and considered outsiders. They have to work hard to establish themselves, because all their actions are often judged against other popular statements like “a daughter-in-law can never be like a daughter” and “a son is your son only till he marries” and “she will take your son away“. They may also be the target of dowry harassment. Additional hostile stereotyping as perpetrators of abuse on parents-in-law could increase conflict and distrust at home and affect how the daughter-in-law is treated right from when she gets married.

In my opinion, carpet-bombing blame games and platitude-spouting don’t help anyone.

  • Elders start feeling insecure and reading motives in every small action of their adult children (or daughters-in-law). They may get scared and tense, or angry and hostile. Every minor lapses or genuine difference of opinion will be viewed as proof of disrespect or as harbinger of future torture.
  • Adult caregiving children feel they are under scrutiny all the time, and are being criticized and misunderstood by people who don’t understand the full range of their challenges. The tension may affect their way of interacting.
  • Abusive children don’t get transformed into considerate and loving and dutiful and perfect children because the carpet-bombing is so generic that most probably abusive children won’t even notice it, let alone feel pressured by it
  • Persons currently not in either role (not elders being cared for, and not adult children doing the caring) may feel moralistic about them and even feel inspired. But how far will such inspiration affect actual care and choices? When facing real-life dilemmas and challenges, people need practical solutions applicable to their immediate situations, not vague, lofty statements.
  • Caregivers facing challenges need information and resources. Such statements make them hesitate to approach volunteer agencies because they assume (rightly or wrongly) that most volunteers will be critical instead of helping them. They don’t feel confident that persons making such judgmental or preachy statements can (or are willing to) understand complex personal situations and suggest practical tips and solutions.
  • Such statements are specially inconsiderate and cruel for persons who were at the receiving end of abuse when they were young–for example, physically or sexually abused children who are now adults and looking after the parents who abused them. Or children who saw their mother being battered by a father who now needs care. Or a daughter-in-law who has spent years being taunted because of dowry. These statements remind them of how they have been forced into silence about their problems all their lives. Please do remember such cases are not rare. They are just hidden.
  • These type of statements also reduce the pressure/ motivation of social/ corporate bodies to study real-life situations and create appropriate, affordable services and solutions because they imply that problems are rare or that they can just be solved by repeatedly telling people to remember their culture and duty (if only everyone was good there would be no problem)
  • Based on these types of statements, outsiders feel good and moral about judging and criticizing any family that doesn’t seem good enough. These statements ramp up expectations about what the family should do and also reduces the willingness of acquaintances to empathize/ appreciate/ help. (The family is just doing their duty, what’s the big deal. That quite defeats any possible motivation for creating a supportive network. If you can scold and force people to do their duty, there is no need to help them…

I think people who genuinely care should resist the temptation to issue sweeping moral-sounding statements/ criticisms.

In fact, I feel that the more balanced and mature voices in the field should disown such simplifications and criticisms and instead introduce sensitivity and balance in discussions. This will help to promote a genuine introspection into the complex causes that often underlie problems. We need more study and discussion about the multiple dynamics that create problems: the family setting and past history of abuse, mistrust, exploitation, power games; economic factors; health factors, multiple responsibility and roles; personality differences and clashes; statements and opinions of persons around (friends, neighbors, relatives, co-workers); overall societal supports and expectations; etcetera.

And perhaps, in addition to studying in detail the cases where things go wrong, we also need to understand why and how things often go right (instead of dismissing successes as so they did their duty, so what?) To replicate success and desirable outcomes, we must know the factors that contribute to it.

(Aside: I had started this blog entry to discuss my concerns about several implicit assumptions about typical dementia caregiving situations and how that reduces available support for many challenges that caregivers face, but somewhere down the line, I got distracted. I’ll probably pick up my original topic later for another blog entry later…)

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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.

One Response to Platitudes, shame-and-blame games, and avoidance of introspection on complex causes

  1. arun says:

    Glad to be put in contact with you by Hendi. I was a 36 hrs day caregiver to my dear wife for 6 1/2 years. She passed away 7 months ago at an age of 78th year. I want to do some thing for those AD sufferers who are living and not so well cared for. Can we join hands?

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