“you just shove your parents off to old people’s homes ….”


This is my first original post in a long time, having been unable to write due to physical (lack of time) and psychological restraints. The latter resulting from both, a fall out with a friend with whom I used to discuss matters concerning humanity but who has suddenly shifted her views by 180* and the chronic illness of my mother which had gotten worse since she had lost her affiliation with the German railways last autumn. Obviously, having a chronically depressed parent is not just psychologically straining but also takes up time, a lot of time, either on the phone calming my dad, when my mother had suddenly disappeared again, on the phone to her trying to talk some sense into her, being in their house and physically feeling all energy being drained out of me by translating all the weird and often not nice things that my mother is saying into ‘don’t listen to it, don’t take any of this serious, the reason for these ugly thoughts is that she is obsessed with the idea that life is generally bad and the odds are against her …’. Just as a matter of fact, her life is pretty good, if she wasn’t continuously making a mess of it, it could even be above average, but still pretty good under the circumstances.

Readers might wonder what my mother’s illness has to do with Pakistan. I am not just whining or looking for an excuse of why my writing has been so slow.  It’s just something that needs to be shared to show that perceive differences between East and West are merely stereotypes without any basis. I believe in humanity more than in countries and often find that those countries whose cultures seem to be miles apart have more in common than one might think at first. Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to get that point across when my friend’s uncle tried to convince me of the joint family system in Pakistan, concluding with: “In Europe, you just shove your elderly parents off to old people’s homes and get on with your individualised life.”  These might not have been the exact words he used, but basically the stereotypical image he had in his head. I don’t know why I didn’t tell him the truth; that things aren’t that black and white. Maybe after dinner conversation time was just over and I didn’t feel blurting out the sentence: “I have been looking after my mother ever since I can remember and I am seriously still hoping that she will one day turn into an adult and learn to look after herself, so that I and my siblings can finally really get on with our own lives” wouldn’t do the situation justice.

Ever wondered why there are homeless people in a country where everybody is entitled to unemployment benefits, housing support etc.? Homeless people in Germany just show how inept the health system is at dealing with mentally ill people. By law every person in Germany is health insured and through that health insurance they have a right to be treated for physical and mental diseases. However, and here comes the tricky bit. If they refuse to be treated, they can go home! Even a person who has 4% alcohol in their blood (a rate at which most people are already dead) will be apparently sent home from the hospital if they wish so. The funny thing with asking mentally ill people whether they want to be treated is like asking a person with a broken leg to run a marathon. If they happily said yes, there wouldn’t be much treatment necessary. I can only conclude at the end of the day this comes down to money. Places in rehab are expensive and so every person who says ‘no’ to therapy saves them some euros. Who cares whether the suffering of that person and their family is going on.

As long as there is a family no one else has to even try and take some responsibility even though they have had professional training and would actually have the authority to be listened to by my mother. But as long as my dad will be there to pick her up, they will always call from the hospital and send her home instead of straight to detoxification and into rehab. I have never known a mother as in the way that the word would imply. Just someone to look out for when their mood swings set in again. There was a window between me and my sisters children’s room and my parents’ bedroom. I only learned as an parents normally normally like to observe their children. Not so in our family. When my mother was sleeping my dad asked me to watch her through the window. He only told me recently that he has just wanted to know whether she was still asleep and not yet up another violent outburst. For some reason though my child mind decided that I to check whether the bedcovers where moving up and down, so to make sure that she was still alive. I have no idea what made me think this way, only that possibly her physical demise would be near, as emotionally she was never really around. No one really knows what the matter is with my mother except that she gets no happiness out of the things that most people do. She is so obsessed with how miserable her life is that she doesn’t even notice what is going on around her. When my dissertation supervisor asked me what my mother thought about my idea of going to Pakistan, I had to convey to him somehow that my trip not not something that occupied her mind. When upon my return I suggested a Sunday gathering with my siblings at their place, where I’d also cook some food, she protested that I shouldn’t cook something Indian. Well, in the end the gathering didn’t really happen as my mother had another breakdown and my siblings with their partners soon left. Later that day my dad was feeding my mother the Biriyani. In the following weeks I became more and more occupied with trying to figure out how to get a place in rehab, long waits in the waiting room of the family doctor (a very unhelpful completely useless woman, she certainly didn’t study medicine because she wants to help people), long hours on the phone with people giving contradictory information, one week later an appointment at the addiction advice centre where a middle aged, middle sized, laid back lady suggested my mother could start by joining some self help groups. Honestly, she seemed like she had herself taken some drugs that slowed down the brain functions. I had to try and make her understand that the situation was a lot more critical than it seems. Three weeks later, two stays in the detoxification centre (where my mother was both times discharged after one week even though the doctor had said that when she went in that she would have to stay for two weeks), two resulting relapses later my mother has at least managed with the help of the social worker to fill in the application for the rehab centre. Yet, due to the bureaucracy the non waiting list rehab centre place will in reality only be available in 6-8 weeks. What a joke! My mother is still only half convinced that it will help her. The suffering that she is putting her family through is not really crossing her radar.

Two weeks ago I attended a conference at the University of Nottingham on Democracy and Human Rights. During the break I discussed the issue with an employee of the Human Rights centre who came to the conclusion that sometimes the right to freedom of movement cancels out the right to health. That is a thought to ponder.

In any case, next time someone looks at me with their typical preconceptions Western society and tells me how we heartlessly discard our ailing parents to old people’s homes, I will tell them that I have been looking after my mother ever since I can remember and I am still hoping that one day she will actually grow up into and adult and learn to care for herself, so that I can actually start living my own ‘individualised’ life.

One thought on ““you just shove your parents off to old people’s homes ….”

  1. Yeah, people have the same misconceptions about “the West” in India. Though some of their conceptions are correct too. At least in the US there is a strong emphasis on “rugged individualism” that does underscore family life or lack thereof.

    However a lot of Indians miss the point that older middle class people in the West have more active lives than older middle class people in South Asia. They work out at gyms, go on trips, go dancing, get involved in many things, including dating if they are divorced/widowed and they generally have a life that does not depend on their adult kids. And they like it that way.

    In India it seems parents wish to be thought of as “old” even if they are only 50 so that they can just hang out in the house all day and meddle in the lives and marriages of their adult children. I don’t understand why they don’t get hobbies or join some social club. And as they tend to be obese I don’t understand why they don’t join a gym or take a yoga class or something.

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