Thinking about aging and the future of family matters

Earlier this week, I stayed a few days at my parents’ house to look after my mother after she had cataract surgery.  I drove her to the hospital for the surgery as well as to the follow up appointment the next day.  Normally, this would be my father’s job, but he’s still in the Philippines after his brother passed away a few weeks ago.  As I cared for my mother in her home, I had a lot of time to think about family.

Here’s the Reader’s Digest version of my family history:  my parents were born in 1941 (Dad) and 1942 (Mom) in the Philippines, and got married in 1968.  My brother was born in 1969, then the entire family immigrated to San Francisco in 1970.  I was born in 1976, we moved to Marin County (just north of SF) in 1978, and my sister was born in 1979.  My brother got married in 1995, and now has 3 children between the ages of 12-19, living in the North Bay.  I got married in 2006 and currently have no children, living with my wife just south of Oakland.  My sister is not currently married and lives in Portland with her boyfriend.  With the sale of our family business, my parents are now fully retired.  They plan to split their time between Marin County and the Philippines.

As my parents get older (especially in light of my mom’s surgery), I’ve been thinking about what happens next for our family.  We’ve never discussed the scenario if/when my parents are not able to care for themselves.  I never had to contemplate this inevitability previously; both of my father’s parents and my mother’s father passed away before I knew them.  And my maternal grandmother was in my aunt’s care until she passed away in the late 1980s.

As a Notary Public, I frequently worked with customers with their family trusts, wills, powers of attorney and Advanced Health Care Directives.  Our clientele skewed on the older side, so I saw this paperwork at least once a week.  Even though I am not a lawyer, I became very familiar with these forms over the last 4+ years.  A couple of years ago, I urged my parents to update their trust and sign their own AHCDs.  The last part was really important, since none of us kids had any idea what their wishes were.

(Some friendly – but not legal – advice:  if you have children, you should have all your affairs in order.  You don’t want to have probate court split up your assets, which is what is now happening to Prince’s estate.  Yes, it is a lot of work, but it would be better for your family if you take care of it now.  Just think of it as an investment in their future.  Money and time spent now – either by hiring an estate lawyer or completing the paperwork yourself – is well worth it, compared to the potential legal and emotional costs to your family if these aren’t in place.)

The perspective of aging and senior care is surely different for my parents than for me, especially in the cultural sense.  In the Philippines, middle and upper class senior citizens will have live-in staff to care for them (cooks, maids, nurses, etc.)  The price of labor there is much less expensive, so many more people can afford this type of home care.  And if that is not affordable, parents will live with one of their children.  I don’t remember ever hearing about any independent senior communities or assisted living centers in the Philippines.

In this country, senior health care is a booming, multi-billion dollar industry.  As our life expectancy grows, so does the need for advanced health care.  The idea of putting senior citizens in a home is not taboo in this country, but I find this a very difficult topic of conversation to have with my family (which we have not had yet, FYI).  And when we do, what decisions will be made?  Will my parents go to a home?  Will they want live-in care?  Can they afford these these services?  Or do they think they will live with me or one of my siblings?  (If they live with me, I will need to add-on to our 2-bedroom, 1-bathroom house.)

One of my biggest fears is that my family will be too timid to have these conversations while my parents are of sound mind.  Instead, we may be forced into hasty decisions if my parents’ health deteriorates quickly.  But how do you tell the people who have cared for you their entire lives that they need to plan for a time they cannot care for themselves?  Especially people who have survived great obstacles to get to their current place in life.

It doesn’t help that our current family dynamics reflect the current political climate in America:  lots of talking (sometimes yelling), but not a lot of listening or understanding.  Before I took over the Store in 2013, my 3 siblings lived fairly independent lives of each other and our parents.  But when I was thrust into the family business, I learned a lot about our family dynamics, both involving me directly or between other members.  It was a lot easier emotionally to be ignorant of the relationships; now that I have a little better understanding of everyone’s place and feelings, life has gotten more complicated.  It didn’t help that I was in the middle of everything, running the Store.  I thought it would be easier now that it has been sold, but I can no longer escape this interconnected web.

Eventually, the 5 of us will have to settle this.  Getting all of us in the same room has always been difficult, now so much more with my sister living out of state.  Hopefully, we can get everyone together in December during the holidays.  This would be most ironic, since it would be the first time doing so in over 25 years.  (The holiday season was the busiest for our Store, so Christmas was usually just an eat-and-go-to-sleep type holiday for those of us who worked in the business.)

But Christmas is over 5 months away; hopefully nothing will happen to my parents until then.  For now, I suppose I will have to keep these fretting over these details.  Thankfully, my mother is recovering fine from her surgery, and my father will be back from the Philippines in a couple of weeks.

You know the saying “You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family”?  Even though my relationship with my family has been complicated, I don’t know if I would pick another one. Yes, at times life has been difficult for us.  No, I do not understand some of the decisions my parents have made for us kids.  But the struggles (both external and intellectual) have shaped me beyond comprehension.  As I continue to dwell on these struggles, I hope to continue to unpack these intertwining layers and delve into who I have become.  It’s been 40 years in the making… I just hope that it doesn’t take another 4 decades to figure out.


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