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.

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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.

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