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Right Speech, Right Action Among Elders and Young Feminists

December 20, 2010

Of the four commonly-cited inescapable sufferings (birth, old age, sickness, and death — sidenote: why puberty-slash-adolescence didn’t make the list, I don’t know), lately I’ve been getting acquainted with the latter three.  Dad has veered sharply and suddenly toward death in the past four months.  (Thankfully, after this most recent spinal surgery a week ago, he’s recovering well.)  And during our time in Nicaragua, I saw more closely than ever the way that my boss, teacher, friend, and a co-founder of the Faithful Fools, Kay Jorgenson, is living with her advanced and intensifying Parkinson’s.

It’s common knowledge that us kids these days in the States are generally lousy at caring for, and living with, those who are aging, whose faculties are deteriorating, and who are nearing their death.  As products of a youth-worshiping and death-denying environment, we perpetuate and acquiesce to behavioral and institutional forms of elder isolation, shaming, and neglect — from expressing disgust toward the sexuality of the old (particularly women), to casually off-loading Grandma into the iconic nursing home, eager to get on with business.

So how can we, as young feminists and/or students of dhamma, create and reclaim healthier practices for relating to elders?  It’s too big a question to cover right here, but I wanted to approach one small slice of the issue: communication around diminishing abilities, and growing needs for assistance.

A common example is driving.  We think Opa shouldn’t be getting behind the wheel anymore.  He feels otherwise.  How do we navigate this?

Certainly with empathy, understanding, and compassion.  For so many people in the States, driving a car is practice of independence and vitality.  (Especially when it’s not just a commute.)  And for the aging, giving up driving means forfeiting a precious stronghold of freedom, a whole paradigm for experiencing and embracing and surviving the world. Fearing life without a car is like fearing a mini-death.  Makes sense.  Plus, it’s hard to have someone enforce restrictions on us without feeling patronized, condescended to, or even trapped.

But as concerned children, grandchildren, and caregivers, we also consider the risks (slash- our own fears).  Poor eyesight, a jumpy heart; kid gets run over, a stroke on the freeway.  And the kicker is: though our elders may know about their physical limitations that ought to rule out driving, they may not accept them.  So where does this leave us?

For a fresh example on the same theme, and to get more into what I mean by the whole feminist angle, a story about me and Kay, just this last Thursday, on our return trip from Nicaragua.

After a 12-hour journey, airport-to-airport, and once we had claimed our baggage, Kay teetered and swayed on her cane, as usual.  The others of our group left to catch the subway, and she and I waited for our ride.  Originally it was Kay’s daughter, Andy, who lives with her and also works at the Fools, who was slated to pick us up.  But Andy had a Fools catering gig that night, so instead it was Josh, another residential intern, same as me.

Josh arrived, there was hugs and luggage loading, and we were off.  Into horrific traffic.  As we crawled along, I asked Josh if he could drop me off at Fools’ Court first, before heading to Kay’s, so that we could get some cacao into the Fools’ freezer, and so that I might shower and get on my way to Oakland, where I had dinner plans.  No problem, he said, as long as he could make it back from Kay’s in time to catch a 7:15-or-so BART train: he had plans in the East Bay, too.

Soon, though, the relentless traffic made it clear that we would both be late.  Aloud, with Kay in on the convo, we wondered whether, as a solution, Andy might be able to pick her up from the Fools.

Now this is where it gets interesting.  Kay’s immediate response to this suggestion was: Oh absolutely, yes, it makes the most sense for Andy to come get me, since she’s catering only a few blocks away.  Perfect.  And so, thinking we had worked out a fix to a problem, we passed the word to Andy (couldn’t contact her directly, so we called another Fool catering at the same place), and went on our way.

Boy, was Andy pissed with us.  We each got a text message expressing her profound disappointment that we treated Kay so “casually,” and that we couldn’t be bothered to bring home a 78-year-old woman who just endured 12 hours of international travel.  Despite what she herself may have said, Kay should not have been left like that.

Now here is where the paradigms of respect, and right speech and action, collide.  My feminist social education is heavily influenced by (1) open-minded sex-positivity (in other words, not “treat others as you would like to be treated;” ask them how they like to be treated), (2) focus on consent, and (3) co-operative decision making.  This, combined with my problem-solving personality, means that my version of treating others with respect involves taking them at their word.  In an environment of warmth, trust, and safety, where people feel confident that they won’t get chewed out, ridiculed, etc. for voicing their needs and desires,  I revel in teamwork and collective navigation.  If person A proposes an action, and persons B and C enthusiastically consent, then I feel that we, as a team, have made a decision, and can proceed together.  It’s a beautiful way of relating, and I feel damn lucky to have found community in which this is the norm.  So when Kay assured us, with all enthusiasm, that she was glad to stay at Court, my respect for her automatically translated into respect for that statement (as truth).

But for folks of my parents’ generation (and this is according to my mom, and others I’ve talked to), right action and right speech work differently, especially with elders.  For various reasons, including combinations of pride, not wanting to burden others, and genuine confusion and mental incapacitation (not knowing one’s own limits), many elders often cannot and should not be expected to voice their specific needs and abilities.  Even if in the past, their word has been law, now, others must make decisions on their behalf — even in direct opposition to what they say they want.  Furthermore, young people ought to care for elders according to universal standards of maximal comfort and safety, rather than negotiable or personalized specifics.  Even if G-ma insists that she’s okay with just one blanket, if you feel a nip in the air, bring her another quilt.

There are lots of reasons I’m inclined to resist this way of thinking.  For one, elaborate dances of manners and politeness have never sat well with me.  Too much passive-aggression and demand for mind-reading.  “It’s our anniversary!  Of course you should have gotten me a gift!”  Mm, no thanks.  I’m much more comfortable when people ask directly.  My version of generous action doesn’t hinge on surprise, or the fulfillment of unspoken expectations.

Less prettily, the strength of prizing direct communication can include a neurotic flip side, which makes a subtler, more old-school version of elder care not only less appealing in the abstract, but more difficult in the hands-on.  Like, I am mildly terrified of looking after young children or needy animals.  How am I supposed to treat something well when it actively resists the things that it needs?!?  I know my friend’s dog needs to go for a walk, but there it sits there like a lead weight, ears back, refusing to go out the door.  So I tug on the leash, or even pick up the little guy, and once we’re down the stairs and outside the apartment building he reluctantly (doesn’t it seem resentfully?) goes about his business.  This is an extremely, almost paralyzingly uncomfortable situation for me.  As you can imagine, I avoid human babysitting like the plague.  Not all feminists of my genre are similarly stunted, of course.  But in my case, the preference for open, lucid communication leans toward an extreme, taking on this special, almost anti-maternal manifestation.  Thus, the old adage about parents parenting kids, and then kids parenting their parents, just doesn’t go down so smoothly for me.

So what’s a young feminist like me to do?  I’d love to hear thoughts, advice, experiences from you all.  For now, I want to try out my mom’s (and Andy’s) worldview on respecting elders.  Now that I’ve grasped (somewhat) the differences in outlook, I can stop clinging to my views, my way of doing things, and experiment with this alternative.  Not ignoring what the elders say, but taking it with a grain of salt — and always, always erring on the side of caution, comfort, and safety.  A new middle way?  I’ll let you know how it goes.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Huli permalink
    December 21, 2010 6:49 am

    I have been living with my aging mother again for the past year and a half. My mother has been diagnosed with both leukemia and Parkinson’s during my stay with her, and I have no idea how to grapple with some of the contradictions you bring up in your post. Thanks for sharing this; as always, your words give me much to reflect upon.

  2. December 21, 2010 9:10 am

    Huli, if someone as wise as you has no idea, that makes me feel a hell of a lot better! Thank you for the “amen.” I’d love to hear more, sometime, about how this part of life is going for you.

  3. nathan permalink
    December 21, 2010 9:45 am

    I don’t have any really good answers either. However, I’m wary of the universalizing of how elders act and speak. My great grandmother, and my grandmother (on my father’s side), have always been very direct and clear about what they think and want. I’ve seen the family override their views a few times, but mostly it’s been about negotiating and listening to their views on issues. Sure, both are stubborn and perhaps prideful and sometimes a little confused about things, but voicing needs doesn’t seem to be a huge issue. Or, at least with grandma, she’s been independent for so long that she’s comfort and ease aren’t really her biggest concerns.

    My mother’s mom, however, is definitely one who doesn’t speak up about her needs, and clearly is just trying to not be a burden (she says that often in fact). So, somewhere in all this, the way a person is, how they generally are in the world, needs to be considered.

  4. December 21, 2010 10:08 am

    Yeah, I hear you nathan, and I was reflecting on the universalizing piece while I was writing, trying to strike an okay balance. May not have proved successful, but here’s where I was coming from.

    Mainly what’s interesting to me about the universalizing question is the way that young folks like me get called out, from someone like Andy in this case, for *not knowing what we should have known about How To Treat An Elder.* Obviously (to me), there are differences in how people, including older people, want to be treated, like you’re saying. And that’s kind of what I’m saying about the feminist sensibility, too. But simultaneously, we also have these cultural edicts around elders (or “teens,” or “toddlers,” etc.) that do tend toward universalizing. Because they’re talking about trends and patterns, I suppose.

    Do you see your grandmother and great-grandmother on your father’s side as being about average in their voicing of needs, in comparison to other elders you’ve encountered in your life, or who are part of your friends’ families?

    I guess what I’m wondering is how to balance appreciation for “the way a person is,” in terms of an individual personality, with cultural upbringing and social constructions that may vary across generations (on average). Sounds like, in your father’s family, things have worked out pretty well on this score, which is great!

  5. nathan permalink
    December 21, 2010 11:03 am

    “Do you see your grandmother and great-grandmother on your father’s side as being about average in their voicing of needs, in comparison to other elders you’ve encountered in your life, or who are part of your friends’ families?” You know, this is a good question. I also have a friend in her mid 70s who is quite vocal and clear about needs, and not needs. It makes me wonder if my experience is not the norm, or if there really are a lot of elders that are like those in my life. My grandfather had Alzheimers for the good part of a decade, so he’s out of the norm to some degree as well, even with more elders experiencing Alzheimers these days. So, I don’t know. I’m thinking of my sangha now, and for example, an elder student there who is one of our lay teachers – he often tells us when he can’t hear, or needs something different to sit on because of pain. I guess my experience is pretty mixed, but it might not be the general pattern.

  6. Cat permalink
    December 21, 2010 3:42 pm

    I could see another possible reason that Andy was angry with you, which also has it roots in cultural edicts. More than just *How to Treat an Elder,* it also may be a little of “you young people not standing up to your commitment and taking responsibility.” I don’t know Andy, so perhaps my reading of her anger is incorrect and it was only the former edict that she was browbeating you over.

    But it also seems to me that the latter had some play. If Josh’s original commitment was to take Kay home, no matter if she says otherwise the expectation is that Josh do what has been requested of him. The fact that this didn’t happen perhaps also angered Andy. She counted on him (and I guess you) to do this task, especially since the object of the task was her beloved and frail mother. So the two edicts “that’s how you treat an elder” and “young person, do what you say you will and don’t flake or be irresponsible” mutually reinforced each other. The thought could be something like this, “I asked them to do this huge favor and bring my mom home so she can rest from her exhausting trip, but rather than putting her needs first no matter the cost or how long it takes, they think ultimately that their needs are more important and leave my mother to fend for herself.”

    Perhaps my interpretation reflects more on me than the situation. I just know that it would be the kind of criticism that I would get, two punches rolled into one. In my family, knowing how to treat your elders also had a heavy dosage of doing good on your word (in this case, living up to the family ideal of putting elders first).

    It definitely isn’t easy to negotiate these norms, edicts and customs. I find it even harder to handle around family. As much as direct communication is desired, and certainly an ideal I hold, I think it gets hardest to obtain within the family than outside of it. And if you become an interloper in someone else’s family.

  7. December 21, 2010 5:14 pm

    Yep, I hear you on the extra annoyance for the flakiness part, Cat. I think you’re right that that was part of it. But to me it felt secondary to Andy’s worry around Kay because of her age and health. I mean, ordinarily, plans can be flexible among us Fools. It would have been totally different, not a problem, if it had been Carmen or Denis, not Kay, in the car with us. It also would have gone down differently if Kay had expressed any reluctance to stay at Fools’ Court, or said something like, “You know, I would really like to go to my own bed right now, instead of Carmen’s bed.” So even though I see and appreciate the perspective that says, “those kids put their own needs before Kay’s needs,” the tricky part was that we actually did consider and honor Kay’s needs as she expressed them to us, though not as Andy or Alej or someone else might have defined them (which might have been more accurate).

    Anyhow, those “two punches rolled into one” (young people are incompetent, irresponsible, and flaky/young people are callous and unappreciative toward elders) can definitely feel sickening when it comes to family. With you on that, for sure. It’s horrible to feel like a bad daughter. It’s also horrible to feel guilt-tripped and emotionally manipulated, or held to someone else’s standards, with no communication or negotiation as equals. But maybe some people’s families are super positive and healthy around this stuff? One can hope. :) Have you ever met any families that kind of made you go, “Wow, this communication is the opposite of dysfunctional”?

  8. Lori permalink
    December 22, 2010 10:23 am

    Katie, as always, you bring up topics that are fraught with a good kind of tension. My first inclination as I read through your re-telling was that you should have taken Kay home. But then I noticed my own upbringing was speaking to me–my family’s unspoken rules about what one needs without ever voicing it. As I continued to read through the way you negotiate and collaborate in decision-making, I felt both affirmed and relieved. I thought, “Ahhh…a community that communicates openly, thoughtfully, honestly, and where everyone expresses his/her own needs and takes ownership. What a healthy way to move in the world.”

    My experiences with my mother and my own personal growth have brought these issues to light in the past year. My mom has always “needed” some form of care-taking because of her blindness. She never openly expressed to me that she needed it; it simply was an expectation. And for some reason, as her daughter, I was expected to bear this brunt more than my other family members–without ever voicing my needs or my place or my resentment or my anger around this arrangement.

    When my mother became ill this past spring and was hospitalized, she had hit her nadir in terms of depression and in terms of having to face herself. When I put up my boundaries about how much care I could give (she had the support of many, including doctors and other family members), her resentment-filled responses always included the phrase, “But you’re my daughter.” I felt so much anger and resistance in that moment. Several decades of being a daughter to my mother had begun to crush me. As my mother tacitly refused to take advantage of the myriad services offered to people who are sight impaired, I grew to loathe my filial “responsibilities.” And when my mom was at the hospital and I was experiencing all these emotions, I had a flash into the future: What will it be like when she becomes old? What will it be like if she continues to refuse these other services? Who will I be in all of it?

    As I backed away from taking any more responsibility, my mom learned to manage on her own. She uses her cane more freely now; she meets with people who provide her with services; she takes walks by herself; she has become more independent. And now, too, my mom is openly expressing her fears about where she in the world. She has a lot of fear and a long way to go, and I do believe that as she becomes old and more frail and less able to see, I will face the cycle of tension again, wondering when to step in and when to back off–and simply, when to gently and compassionately encourage behavior that allows her to be safe, take ownership, and feel empowered.

    So my wisdom? I have none. Aging and familial bonds and cultural expectations and our own needs make this whole issue like an Italian wedding soup: a whole lot of stuff mixed into a bowl where the flavors meld and blend. Hopefully, the aftertaste is one that is satisfying.

    I hope you’re well, as always.

  9. Cat permalink
    January 1, 2011 1:29 pm

    To answer your question, yes, I have met families where the communication is beautifully clear. My friend Yatesha is one of the most amazing communicators I know and she is training her children into becoming eloquent, thoughtful and honest human beings.

  10. @at permalink
    January 5, 2011 1:04 am

    really appreciate this post. im in japan with my family (where i first read your blog last year, and was inspired to start my own!) and see my mother caring for my grandpa who is no longer independent. its uncomfortable for me to see it / think about it as it is, so i appreciate ur courage in digging in on the issue. maybe its just the fact that watching my mom care for my grandpa makes real the fact that i will also be in a position of caring for my own parents. which i know will be hard. im glad to hear that your father is doing better at the moment. im so appreciative with how honest and vulnerable you’re willing to be on your blog.. it opens the door for the rest of us to feel with you while reflecting on our own torments and delights. i also appreciate some of the thoughtful comments above. go kloncke.

  11. January 5, 2011 10:41 pm

    @at thanks my friend, that means a whole lot. hope to get to talk sometime about how japan is/was for you! i’ll be in your neck of the woods at the end of this month.

    and i really appreciate that you appreciate the honesty. to me it feels like sort of a selfish thing, because the more open i can be in writing my real thoughts and feelings, the better and more clearly i can work with some of these questions for myself. so it means a lot to me that my processing is also useful for other folks; and even better, that other folks’ comments and reflections loop back to enrich my own processing itself.

    big hugs! hope you’re having some fun adventures right at this very moment.

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