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Taking Care

Jun/07/2024 / by Shonali Burke

Caring for aging family members and the elderly has long been a core cultural value—but immigration and changing generational expectations have put new pressures on the practice. Here’s how three women have paved the way forward with compassion, love, and flexibility. 

Love, Across Oceans

The challenges of caretaking from the other side of the globe

I’m originally from Kolkata, India and I moved to the US in 2000. I’m one of 3 siblings; I live in the U.S., my sister lives in the U.K., and my brother lives in Singapore. We have a lot of family and friends in Kolkata, but it is different when not even one child is “at home.”

While we tried to keep tabs on our parents’ health as best we could, in 2016 my mother became critically ill due to failing kidney function. After flying home at short notice, I put in place an extremely intense in-home care situation that included transporting her to and from the hospital for dialysis three times a week, working with her medical providers at her hospital, as well as an elder care company. Think of an in-home ICU.

Shonali

My brother and I maintained this until Mum passed away in 2018. We maintained a modified version for my dad who was more or less ok initially, but who started deteriorating from Parkinson’s & dementia. We then had to step it back up to the in-home ICU set up through COVID and following, until he passed away a couple of months ago.

We did this long-distance, as neither of us had the luxury of moving back home. Thank goodness for the internet. Had we been in this situation a few decades ago, there’s no way it would have worked.

Looking back, it was exhausting, all the phone calls across time zones, WhatsApp chats, keeping on top of doctor visits, medical tests, hospital visits both routine like Mum’s dialysis and critical, managing the household, staff, and more.  

The distance and stress were significant; stress also included keeping other family members posted, both in India and abroad. And there is always guilt — guilt that you are not there, and constantly second-guessing yourself as to if/what you could do better.

There’s so much worry, fear, grief (at slowly losing your parent/s) in a situation like this, and it is not easy to find joy when, frankly, you know this is a story that has only one ending. Perhaps a better word is comfort. I do think we took comfort in knowing we were doing the very best we could for our parents. When their quality of life was good and they seemed happy or, at least, content. That was comforting. 

The greatest piece of advice I could give to women in similar positions is twofold:

  1. There will always be someone who will try to tell you what to do/how to do it better. Do not let others guilt you into thinking what you’re doing isn’t enough. Only you know what you’re dealing with.
  2. It is really important to find ways to take care of yourself. Caregiving, especially long-distance, is exhausting. And if we don’t find ways to recharge, we end up burning out and not being able to take care of our loved ones. So it’s really important to find ways to rest & recoup, and also to not be scared to ask for help. People want to help, they just need to be asked.
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