The Goddess Speaks
Hawaiians have it right about elders
Lately, both my husband and I have had to deal with the issue of aging parents. Escalating medical concerns, coupled with problems of transportation and personal care, have initiated the discussion among our various siblings about how to approach parents who are discovering a shrinking capacity to manage the day-to-day tasks necessary to maintain independence.
I realize that this is part of our own process of growing up and facing our mortality, but watching a role model from childhood reduced to panic over what food is edible in the fridge, is an exercise both in patience and humility.
I like the Hawaiian approach to this problem. Our elders become a familywide responsibility and a living legacy of knowledge, wisdom, and hope. My husband and I are in complete agreement that as long as independence or even partial independence is possible, no family member should be shuttled off to a managed-care facility.
It's an indication of the place of the kupuna in Hawaiian life that our friends and family in Hawaii agree with our reluctance to have the "old folks home" conversation, and our siblings and children on the mainland do not. Is it better to chance a fall or stroke while an older family member is alone in his or her own home, or should we place our slightly compromised elderly into environments where they are supervised, but where the familiar patterns of home are supplanted by imposed routine and impersonal guardianship?
Supporting an aging parent requires vigilance and energy, but I can't imagine incarcerating my dad, even if it would be safer for him, and easier for me. Eventually, of course, it might be necessary, as both my father and I have accepted, but helping an aging relative stay at home has become for me a way of life.
Whenever I get really tired and discouraged, especially in the middle of the night for one more of those emergency runs to Pali Momi Hospital, I have to remind myself that service to the elderly is not a burden, nor an unfair responsibility. It's just the natural balance of life. Our elders took care of us once, and now it is our turn to return the favor by caring for them.
Not everyone feels this way, but I suspect that in Hawaii, my point of view is more common than that of my brother, who has told me that unless Dad is actually starving, he doesn't bear any responsibility to help.
Dad is a part of my daily routine, not just someone I visit or who visits me. I don't see the world as being only about me and my immediate concerns, and I am profoundly glad to be living in a place where aging relatives are regarded as a resource and not as a burden. My father has some issues with driving and with his health, but he is wise and kind and funny -- and independent, with some help from me.
Cris Rathyen teaches English at Moanalua High School.
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