Saturday, August 29, 2015
Recently, I was remarking flippantly and in jest to a friend in a coffee shop that I should like to have two daughters, so that if one cannot look after me in my old age the other would. In so doing, I was parodying a traditional prejudice that was prevalent among the elderly Samian generations of my childhood, namely, that daughters are more important than sons, because daughters end up looking after their parents, whereas sons do not. (Of course in other parts of Greece, the prejudice has often been the inverse, with daughters traditionally being considered unimportant as they would end up looking after their in-laws). As my friend laughed nervously, pointing out that he has two sons, our conversation was interrupted by an animated Greek-Australian lady, in her early sixties seated at the next table.
Having overheard our conversation, she wanted to point out that my supposed desire to be looked after by my children was nothing more than a pipe-dream. According to her view, in a society which is ever increasingly focused upon the individual and its career, children are being brought up without a sense of compassion or obligation. Thus, all modern children, especially the girls, are selfish, and cannot be relied upon. They contact their parents only when they need something, often abuse them and do not spend any time with them. In fact, she stressed, rather than vainly hope and plan my declining years around my children, what I should be doing, is working hard to amass enough cash to get myself into a decent aged care facility when I am old and infirm. Despite interjecting several times to assure her that I was joking, she then proceeded to tell us about her own experience (she grew up in Australia, is more conversant with English than Greek and thus straddles the first-second generation divide) and how her children's disregard of her contrasted with her own care for her aged parents, terminating the conversation thus: "I hope all your dreams with regard to your children come true. But they won't." Bleak, and yet how many parents of that generation feel this way about their children? Is there truly a divide in values and obligations towards each other and the way these are respectively perceived between the Greek-Australian generations?
Going forth to pose the question among members of the second generation of Greek-Australians, I received a number of interesting, reasoned responses:
One gentleman remarked: "Surely you don't want daughters for the purpose of them looking after you? Our children have their own lives to lead, not ours. We raise them to the best of our ability. We hope they turn out to be good people who live fulfilling lives, not our own. We need to take care of ourselves and ensure that in old age we have care sorted out and not wait in hope (and some unfortunately in vain) that our children will look after us."
In discussing why second generation Greek-Australians perceive their obligations to "look after" their parents, another gentleman remarked: "Many would be doing it out of guilt. Or community expectations. I don't want to be judgmental but it was the cultural norm to be the support of the elderly. It made sense for the previous generations given their financial predicament. But our generation who was born in Australia is in a better position to secure care for our old age - see superannuation - than wait in the hope that our children "will look after us". I'd rather my children got on with their lives and ensured they had a good one with their respective families than worry about taking care of me. I've seen many cases the pressure put on our parents' generation to be at the call of their parents and how it has overwhelmed their life. For some, there was no alternative. But for our generation, there is. I don't want my daughter to have her life dictated by my expectations."
One lady, offered a totally different perspective: " If you have had the experience of working as a social worker in a nursing home you might be horrified to see how isolated the majority of our elderly Greek and others live. They are dumping grounds for the old, regardless of their financial situation. All they want is someone to visit and may be watch TV with them for an afternoon. Dropi, the way some of our old people are treated."
Another, being a second-generation Greek-Australian woman who looks after her invalid mother observed: "I hear people say they want the best for their children. People, nothing teaches you about the world, many hidden issues, compassion, patience, unconditional love and damn hard work, than does being there for your elderly parent."
In discussing the inter-generational perceptions of our obligations towards our parents, I noticed something interesting about the way we translate Greek thought into English. "Look after," in English, denotes something much narrower than the Greek «προσέχω» whose meaning it is supposed to convey. Thus when one considers, in English, the obligation or expectation to "look after" their parents, this generally indicates attending to their daily living needs and is the equivalent of the Greek word «φροντίζω.» If we discuss in Greek, on the other hand the obligation «να προσέχω τους γονείς,» the verb «προσέχω», has a number of meanings including, to watch over, concentrate upon, pay attention to, understand, sympathise with, protect and of course, to look after.
This is pertinent because the vast majority of second-generation Greek Australians I spoke to merely addressed the concept of obligations towards their parents merely from a point of view of providing for their daily needs, while on the other hand, most of the first-generation Greek-Australians seemed to emphasize the importance of being paid attention to, being made to feel loved and respected, rather than having their daily physical needs attended to. The sample comments referred to above seem also to correspond to these similar but ultimately divergent ways of considering the same issue. Perhaps then, the transition from one language to the other has a corresponding effect on the way we understand, interpret and ultimately act upon, our own set of values. For many members of our community across the generations, placing their elderly in a nursing home carries a social stigma of filial impiety. For others, it is seen as a gesture of love and a way of permitting them to care for their parents effectively. Here, context and circumstance determine the way in which values are interpreted.
To discuss the reasons why second-generation Greek-Australians sometimes choose not to either "look after/δεν προσέχουν" their parents, is beyond the scope of this brief musing. Coming from a family background that reveres the aged, I have always felt that it was axiomatic that one would want to care for all the members of one's family in their time of need, addressing those needs as much as one is able to do so. Nonetheless, our community is diverse and complex and along with anecdotes of offspring merely being variously ungrateful, selfish, self-centered, abusive, mean, uncaring or incapable there exist also anecdotes of abusive or manipulative first generation Greek-Australians deliberately ruining their off-springs' relationships and future for the sole purpose of ensuring that they have no attachments that would impede them from looking after them in their old age, or purposely refusing the assistance of their daughters-in-law, in order to demonise them and ensure that they can never occupy a position where they could "redeem" themselves in the eyes of the extended family. Furthermore, as I have been able to discover, everyone has their own particular view of how to care for one another and the old certainty of an overarching system of values and obligations inherited from overseas is no longer with us and thus is not a sure guide. The ensuing trauma and dislocation as those on the receiving end of our "care" may not, with reference to the traditional mores they have been brought up with, consider it as such, deserve to be studied I depth.
A few days after the discussion related above, I was in the same coffee shop, with an elderly Anglo-Australian friend who is about to enter supported accommodation. She is vibrant, witty, dynamic, affluent and suffers from extreme Osteoporosis. While her daughter offered to look after her, she chose to enter supported accommodation simply because she wished to maintain her independence. "There is a difference between being an invalid and being a moron," she winked. "Giving each other dignity is something you young people need to learn. At my age, dignity is the most precious thing of all."
As a community, therefore, the debate as to how, paraphrasing the great social prophet Jerry Springer, we look after ourselves, and each other, is long overdue and is necessary, if we are to not only address the changing needs but also the need to maintain the dignity of successive elderly generations, into the future.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 29 August 2015