I was struck by a BBC article on an Asian woman who was a full-time carer for her mother-in-law who was not mobile and needed round-the-clock care. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/8351290.stm. Leena Thakrar did not know who to ask for help and in the end was on the verge of a breakdown, feeling physically and mentally shattered.
In our Asian communities looking after an elderly parent or relative is completely expected. Of course it is seen as the children’s duty – “I looked after you, now you look after me.” And more often than not, this is completely fine and children are happy to do so. But in some cases the rising tensions and strain from tradition duty reach explosive point.
I’ve seen this first hand. There seems to be a circus-level juggling act between all my uncles, to take care of my ageing grandma. Tradition imposes that she must stay in one of her son’s houses. The problem is that the wives, for various reasons, don’t want her there. One wife, who will not be appearing as a nominee for The Carer Awards anytime soon, has made my grandma’s life a muted hell because she didn’t want her there. My uncle was trapped in a quagmire between wife and mother. Everyone watched helplessly.
Now as a sort of compromise, my grandma has had to play a form of musical houses, rotating between them like a shawl-wearing satellite floating around the Middlesex region. Why can’t she stay at our house? Because she would rather eat a McDonalds 100% beef Big Mac than stay at her daughter’s house – tradition prohibits it. The issue of who cares for my grandma has become a dynamite stick to be thrown to the next person in the room – and then to promptly run out of the room.
It is in these cases when you wonder whether the long running traditions can become messy webs tangling people and damaging relationships. I don’t condone the behaviour of the wives who treat their mother-in-law badly to get her out of the house – it is heartbreakingly pathetic to exercise power over an 84-year old woman. But I also question my grandma’s refusal to live with her daughter, choosing a life in misery to a house where she would be welcomed. The dense maze of Asian family duties sometimes weighs down on us, springboarding common sense out of the picture.
The question is – what is the solution? Breaking down years of tradition into modern-sized chunks doesn’t happen in a day. More focus should be on reaching out to British Asian families caring for elderly relatives. As many of them don’t speak English, this should be taken into account to minimise unease and the sense of intrusion. More apartment complexes exclusively for Asian elderly people, with workers and wards who speak the same language are potentially another solution. I’m not suggesting ageing relatives should all be put in care homes – there just needs to be recognition that when a situation has reached a certain point then alternatives must be found.