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Making allowances for ageing parents

A couple of weeks ago, I shared a Washington Post article on my Facebook. It talked about how singles in Singapore were putting their own lives on the back burner because they were looking after aged parents. So career progression gets disrupted and luxuries foregone as they struggle to meet the daily living and healthcare needs of ailing parents. It’s not just about money, but also energy and time. For those who stay with their parents, it’s 24/7 care-giving. 

My heart went out to the courageous daughters and sons who demonstrate their filial piety when duty calls. I wouldn’t call it humble bragging because it’s no easy task handling the physical, mental and emotional needs of people whom you knew to be vigorous and energetic during your own growing up years. 

So I was thrown off by comments which questioned filial piety as a virtue, suggesting that it be re-formulated or updated to fit with the times or even that it was a bankrupt ideology intended to keep the traditional  hierarchy of authority in place. There were many reasons proffered for a re-thinking: too few children in the family to be able to stretch the dollar to cover their parents. Or children who already have to take care of their children, and who should be allowed to “live their own lives’’ without guilt. 

There were the usual “children didn’t ask to be born’’ excuse, which is the worst line you can throw into a parent’s face. Or how parents shouldn’t view children as ATM machines. You list the various whataboutisms…parents who don’t deserve help, children who can’t afford to help and so forth. 

A new-ish reason is how people should have made their own plans for retirement, with no expectation that their children would give a hand.

Of course, there are questions about the role of the State in helping the sandwich generation cope with dependents young and old. 

I happen to think there is plenty of State support for the elderly here. They include the concessions for Pioneer and Merdeka generations, many of whom might not have accumulated enough CPF savings because their salaries were too low in their working days. There’s Eldershield, now called Careshield, and the frequent Medisave top-ups that allow the elderly to pay for outpatient treatment. They lighten the fiscal responsibility of the children. 

The problem is when the elderly are no longer mobile, require rounds of hospitalisation and slide into dementia and other old age problems that require diaper changing, cleaning bed sores, replenishing medicines, inserting IV tubes, help with showering – activities that we think belong only to hospital staff.  

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No one is ever adequately prepared for the time when their own parents start to break down in body and mind. That there might be a time when, just as they had looked after us while we were babies, it would be our turn to baby them. Do we outsource their care? Or take it upon ourselves, with professional help if we can afford it, however difficult the task may be? Should we think in terms of what we would have to sacrifice, instead of thinking of what they had sacrificed to bring us up to this stage of our lives?

For those who can afford it, a convalescent or retirement home is an option – but I doubt it is a place the elderly will voluntarily check into. Most would prefer to “age in place’’ surrounded by family and the familiar. But there will be those who want to alleviate the burden of their children and consent (if they can still do so) to be looked after by better-skilled strangers. At the moment, it is not the “go to’’ option in our society. Many have called for more such facilities, given the increasing number of singles who cannot rely or do not have family support. 

But in all the comments about caring for the old, there is a word which stands out: expectations. The common view is that unlike in the past, parents should not “expect’’ to be looked after by their children when they get old. I agree. In a similar vein,  children should also not expect their parents to bail them out, or live for free in their parents’ household when they are already capable of taking care of themselves. Nor help them buy their first home. Parents need the money for their own old age. 

I sometimes see some benefit in the western way – where children are turfed out of their parents’ home once they start working or would pay for their own food and lodging if they are still staying with their parents. In Singapore, we would call this giving parents an “allowance’’, a bit of a misnomer because the working adults are simply paying for their own living. 

This habit of giving an allowance is alive and well, although it appears to be decreasing. I think it’s a habit that should be ingrained and hardened, right from the time children can stand on their own two feet while living under their parents’ roof.

 I would suggest that young people start preparing extremely early, mentally and financially, to meet their own needs once they make their own money, and ensure that both their parents and themselves are prepared for their own retirement.

I realised this need at an extremely early age, when it dawned on me that I would have to take care of the household given that my late father is twice the age of my housewife-mother. As the eldest, financial planning started early. Family considerations took first place in every life-changing decision I made – whether to continue my studies, which job to take, when to get married and whether I could afford to run two households if I wanted to live on my own. Looking back, that’s a lot of mental pressure for a teenager and young working adult. There was some resentment when I saw my friends lead a more carefree lifestyle, but I think being prudent and far-sighted did me a lot of good in life. 

I consider giving parents a regular allowance, however small, a simple emotional tie. If it starts while the children are single, it becomes a habit when they are married and have moved out. In my view, it is not a “favour’’ that we extend to parents. It’s an obligation, something which is not trendy because all of us want to do “our own thing’’. By the way, it’s also the law. 

Of course, there are working children who can barely cope on their own and would have trouble parting with even $10 every month. What we can’t make up for with money, we should do so with our time and our energy, like taking them for medical checkups or running household errands. We try to alleviate their burden, even as it seems burdensome to ourselves. 

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Do children “have’’ to do this? Are they “expected’’ to do this? I find it disconcerting to hear people say no. That we’ve become slaves to tradition and custom and scoff at old-fashioned terms like filial piety or “honour thy father and thy mother’’. I hope those who want a new relationship with ageing parents are talking only about their own circumstances and not suggesting a modern general practice. 

Filial duty has always been so clear to me. It’s not about fairness or extent of sacrifice. It’s a duty, even if onerous. Period. I cannot explain a duty in practical terms, or put a monetary value, or even rationalise it. I was brought up to think this way. Perhaps, it helps that I’m Catholic because I sure hope to be rewarded with some merits to get into heaven! 

Maybe I would think differently if my parents had put me through hell while I grew up or abandoned me as a baby. So I’m lucky that I have loving parents. In the main, I think most parents are like mine. Some have bigger warts than others, but some children are no saints themselves. 

Even as we try to shore up facilities for the aged, tweak the financing structure for geriatric medical care and work on building up the nest-eggs of those who don’t have enough, methinks that duty or moral value or virtue should never be diminished by talk of “fulfilling one’s own potential’’ and notions that the individual is the centre of society forever asking “what’s in it for me’’? 

I don’t have children, so I am not even expecting an allowance in my old age. I can only hope that my financial planning will see me through the end of life with relative ease. If it doesn’t, I don’t have children to blame – or to help me.

Happy Fathers’ and Mothers’ Day in advance. 

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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