There’s a man in my apartment building in Paris who lives with his ninetysomething mother. He is not young himself. I watch them inch across the small interior lobby, arm in arm. He then helps her, slowly and patiently, down the five-step marble staircase in our entrance foyer. There, he sets up a little three-legged chair where she waits until he gets the car.
He is, as we all would say, “a good son.” Once upon a time, almost every old person could count on an adult child. But now, at least in the U. S., we are suspicious of such men, tied to their mothers as they seem to be.
I thought that perhaps the French are more generous to their aging parents. But, no. Françoise, who is French to the bone (except that she adores Jewish New Yorkers) tells me that aging parents here rarely live with their kids. And for all the benefits this country provides, senior care is not one of them. The state-run facilities, she says, are terrible — warehouses of old people, not unlike in the U. S. Only the rich can afford high-end homes – or, even better, have sufficient funds to age in place and hire aides to help them. Or, one has to have a “good” son or daughter.
I don’t like to think about my children taking care of me. I can’t imagine it, among other reasons because I never had old parents. My mother died at 63. And although my father made it to almost 86, he wasn’t typical. In 1978, 67 and single, he bought Buddy Jacobson’s playboy penthouse on the Upper East Side, and moved in with his twenty-year-old girlfriend. (Imagine the teacher’s surprise when Annie showed up at my daughter’s fourth grade classroom for “Grandparent’s Day.”) My father had enough money to live out most of his last decade with assorted other sweet young things until age and bad habits caught up with him.
Because I never had to deal with old-parent problems (“Should Dad still be driving?”), when my friends complain about how “difficult” their parents are, I identify with the parent in the story, not the adult child. Is this how my children will someday talk about me? Or will one of them be like the man in my building? I’d rather not think about it.
The truth is, care-taking between any two adults in a family is tricky, regardless of whether you occupy the “parent” or the “child” role. And at this particular time in history, many adults are doing both. Thanks to the economy and closer-than-ever parent/child relationships, graduates are returning to the “nest” – coincidentally, at a time when their aging parents are also beginning to need help.
Not surprisingly, given the experience of caring for their aging parents, many of the participants noted that they intended to take steps to “preserve their own independence and spare children of caregiving burdens.” Personally, I prefer the Scarlet O’ Hara approach: think about it tomorrow.
The kind gentlemen’s mother in my building doesn’t have to worry. Today, the two were leaving as I was returning from marketing. They were poised at the top of the stairs. He held her steady with one hand and grasped the little chair with the other “Peut-je aidez-vous?” I asked – probably incorrectly – as he began to shepherd the frail woman down the stairs. He declined my offer to help. I was relieved.
Melinda Blau is the author of 15 books including Family Whispering, Consequential Strangers, and three best-selling Baby Whisperer titles. She also writes “Dear Family Whisperer” for The Huffington Post.