I hear this at least once a week – someone will state they don’t want to be a burden on their family. They don’t want to live with adult children, they don’t want to ask for help if they live alone. It hurts my heart to hear this, I learn so much from the Elders I know and enjoy sharing time and stories. I don’t want to see my role in my family change from participant — from being essential to our joyous and goal-oriented function — to feeling that I have nothing of value to contribute and would only be a draw on resources. A “burden”.

 

New American Dictionary defines burden thus:
burden |ˈbərdn|noun
1 a load, esp. a heavy one.
• a duty or misfortune that causes hardship, anxiety, or grief; a nuisance
• the main responsibility for achieving a specified aim or task
• a ship’s carrying capacity; tonnage:

2 (the burden) the main theme or gist of a speech, book, or argument
• the refrain or chorus of a song. (italics mine)

How did we come to believe that as we age in our family, our role evolves from essential service to a “misfortune that causes hardship, anxiety, grief”, or that we become a “nuisance”??? I have fixed ideas about how this shift from essential, valued, integrated member of the family disintegrated in our Post WWII culture, (you can find them addressed in Chapter One of “Holding Hands: Journeys with the Aging Family” to be released in 2013). More important here is refuting the myth of the invisible, devalued, aging adult and moving from “burden” to “participant” in the co-generational family.
The “burden” concept begs the question, “What do we need to change so that Elders stop defining themselves and their needs as a burden?”  How do we help them quantify the value they bring to the family?
It would be nice if Elders in a co-generational setting were more visible in our media. Portrayals in popular culture “cameo” grandparents, aunts and uncles. They are not part of the weekly story line, and are often written out of our own storylines as well.
This invisibility comes from both sides. Our aging parents, who began their families in the neo-television/post WWII era, also have no model for integrating parents. Likely, they moved away from their own families of origin to the suburbs after the war, leaving their own parents to the care of each other, their siblings or a child who stayed geographically close. To have parents live with us after WWII was interpreted as a weakness – not cutting “apron strings” or being overly involved. “You aren’t going to let your parents tell you what to do, are you?” as though taking advice from those who have been there/done that, would be shameful. Not independent. Not trendy.

Our very narrow tolerance of anything “different” bled into the way we learned to not care for our Elders. On the other end of the parenting spectrum, we were expected to cut our children loose at the earliest legal age and start planning our midlife, renewed “independent, Golden Years” with a sense of relief that all that family stuff was done, checked off the to-do list of life. I’m here to tell you, that was all a bunch of hooey.
What we gained instead were expensive and low-quality institutions to house Elders, middle-aged parents suffering from “empty nest syndrome”, new retirees suffering from a lack of purpose and sense of value. I stand firmly behind the belief, from four decades of observation and one of professional exposure, that humans are most decidedly NOT meant to be independent, autonomous islands in the stream. We hunger for connectedness, integration, participation, feeling valued and loved, and contributing to family and community. The tribal model of survival is as ancient as our earliest recorded histories, there is a reason why. This experiment of division has not promoted individual or family health as our members have aged.  It fractured family resources rather than concentrating family wealth and resources of time, and now creates a discontent in the Elder generation which too often leads to great feelings of sadness and loss. Where they may desire connection and support, they deny their own needs because somewhere along the line they bought the lie that to do so would be burdensome to the very people they gave life and love to.
This is wrong.

Recognizing how we got here is part of the solution. The other part is asking yourself how you show  you recognize the contribution your parents, aunts and uncles, Elder family friends make in your life now. Reminiscing is great, but subtly reinforces the concept that those days of value have passed.

  • Why is their presence important NOW?
  • How do they add value to your life NOW?
  • What could you not do without them for NOW?

In the early self help years, we called these “ego strokes” and they developed a reputation for being unhealthy. They aren’t. We all need to know that we matter to the people around us, and no age cohort needs that more than the one that has been rendered invisible, comical, burdensome in 40 years of televised cultural teaching.
What can your parents teach your children – essential family or cultural knowledge, survival skills, games and playfulness – that you can’t due to limited resources or time? Looking at the generations that stand on either side of you, what do they have to offer each other? Child care? Cooking lessons? Learning to budget money? Homework supervision? Being the licensed driver while a teen gets their supervised hours in? Living models of history?  Can your child learn how to express love and service to an Elder family member, just because it’s the right thing to do? (Teach them now with your parents, and they will teach your grandchildren in time).
This is how we rebuild a cultural model of family members taking care of each other across the lifespan. This model is seamless, no one gets left out. Everyone knows they are important to the quality of someone else’s life, to the security of the family and it’s members, and love and respect have ample room to grow.
Referring back to that original definition, the alternate to “nuisance” was:
2 (the burden) the main theme or gist of a speech, book, or argument
• the refrain or chorus of a song.

I choose to think this is where the descriptor as Elder family member being “a burden” first came from. As the historians of our family and culture, that is a much more tender and fitting definition of those who have come before us, shaped us, nurtured us, raised us up. May our Elder Generation come again to be revered as carrying the chorus of our family song.

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Happy Father’s Day,
Katherine