Filial Love by Fiat: Attention Must Be Paid!

The news that China has had to officially remind its citizens to look after their elderly parents rippled across the tranquil watering holes of summer afternoons like pebbles tossed into a pond.

While trying (or not) to let go of our grown kids and enjoy the responsibiity-free years between now and that distant country of the “old old,” we’re not ready to cut all the ties that bind us, however frayed they may be. Will it take a decree from the government to nudge them into paying attention to us when we get there? After all, we boomers have raised interesting if sometimes problematic progeny.We’ve expended time, money and effort storing up memories for their future, even if we didn’t always know we were doing it: En route home from an African junket occasioned by a writing assignment, my then 20-year-old son said “I know this sounds weird, Mom, but I’ll remember this trip even after you’re dead,” which was my first clue.

Yes, but will he remember me, even when (and if) I hardly do? Right now my children, inching up on middle age themselves, need little more than an occasional text or call to remind them I’m still here, and it’s rare that more than a few weeks go by without seeing or hearing from them. If they’re too focused on themselves to ask about my own life, that’s okay — they take it for granted that I’m fine, and if I’m not, they’re tuned in enough to notice. And while sometimes I’m reminded of what my own mother used to say when I “overshared” — “Don’t tell me anymore, I know enough things” — I’m more likely to hear that from them now than they are from me.

I live across the street from an assisted living complex whose inhabitants are mostly in that distant country, as are some of the spryer residents of my own. I sat on a nearby park bench this week with two of them who were discussing a movie that had been screened in their social room the night before. In Robot and Frank,, a lusty though somewhat befuddled Frank Langella shares star billing with a robot purchased by his overworked son to attend to him in his declining years. It’s definitely the funniest in the increasingly popular genre of “geezer” movies, (although it went largely unheralded when it came out a year or so ago, even among those who know senior citizen tickets are the only good thing about being over 60, especially since the airlines stopped giving geezers discounts). But this 80-ish couple loved it. “If I had one of them, I’d be set for life ” said my neighbor wistfully. “We’d go to baseball games and maybe the horse races. My boys and I do that sometimes.” Behind his back, his wife shook her head. “Not for years,” she told me. “Not even the grandkids visit any more, even though they moved us out here to be closer to them.”

I’m reasonably confident that my kids will stick around for the duration, and be there when I need them as well as when I don’t, which is still mostly the case. So far, they have been, although when I read that article about getting old in China, I felt a bit of a chill. I’m not ready for a robot yet, but a man who drives at night would be nice.

By janeellen

Jane Adams PHD Social Psychologist