Caring for Parents on the Other Side of the World
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Commentator Anni Shamim emigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan in 1985. One by one, over the next 15 years, all of her siblings joined her in America while their parents remained in Pakistan. Now she says her whole family faces a problem that's rare in Pakistan, but common in the U.S. How will the children take care of their aging parents?
ANNI SHAMIM: Every year for the past 10 years or so, my parents have made the trip from Pakistan to the United States to spend a few months with their four children. Two sons in Virginia, me in Connecticut, and another daughter in Michigan. With each visit, we've noticed the accumulation of years on our parents' faces, their bodies, and, eventually, in their creeping ailments. Although Avagi(ph), my father, is a youthful 75, only my mother, at 65, seems older because of her debilitating rheumatoid arthritis.
We were all together at my sister's house in Grand Rapids, Michigan a few weeks ago, seeing her brood under one roof, it injected a welcome dose of energy and Umni's(ph) bearing. She flittered around the house through the kitchen, where she performed her culinary wizardry, to the various spots where her children and grandchildren had camped out. She'd poke her head in the bedroom door and beam at her gossiping offspring, or pull a grandchild to her chest before scurrying back to the kitchen. The rest of us basked in Umni's weakened respite from her usual flare-ups, swelling and terrible pain.
We joked about how Bellau(ph), one of our brothers, an object of Umni's helpless favoritism, is her magic pill. Just by being there, he had done the big, hairy, toxic anti-metabolite, Methotrexate, that monster of a drug our sister, as a doctor, had her put on. Surrounded by the undulating white of Michigan snow, we feasted on Umni's steaming lamb and potato curry and chicken korma, and we welcomed yet another opportunity not to worry about our parents' eminent future.
It is a future that we have talked about only in passing. Since none of us plan to move back to Pakistan, our parents will eventually have to come here permanently, but the unanswered questions are which one of the children's houses will they be based in? How will their medical expenses be taken care of? Who will attend to their day-to-day needs?
Putting them in a nursing or retirement home would be unthinkable in Pakistani culture. Tradition also dictates that Pakistani sons bear responsibility for old parents, so will our brothers share charge of them? But wait, our sister is a doctor, financially sound, and could help out with our uninsured parents' medical needs. Her husband is lovely and cooperative, so should she have them part of the time? But then what about his mother, who's a widow and might eventually want to come live with them, too? And what should my role be in all this?
Aye, uh-falah(ph), no wonder we let the eating and laughing take over. Our family really should be more proactive about this. We need to take stock of our parents' assets in Pakistan, have them sell what should be sold, buy an apartment close to one of the children, or build a parents' wing in one of our existing homes. Chip in to buy the exorbitantly expensive health insurance they must have, and visit them often. We may even be able to get them an Indian or Pakistani helper for cooking and cleaning. We must be there for our parents, our (unintelligible), when they need us most and convert our good intentions to solid practice. But to do that, we'll have to call a family meeting, face reality, and make some tough decisions. And I think we'll hold the joking and spicy curries 'til the very end.
NORRIS: Anni Shamim lives in Ridgefield, Connecticut.
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