Are you your parents pension plan?

There is an old Ghanaian saying in my Akan language that loosely translates, if your parents care for you from the time you had no teeth until you grew your full set, then it is your responsibility to care for them until they lose all theirs. A beautiful saying that implies that since parents care for their children from infancy until they are able to care for themselves, it is the responsibility of children to look after their parents when they are old and no longer able to care for themselves. Most times, this saying refers to providing financial support to ones parents – it is what I have known growing up and has become the expectation of parents and their children in the part of the world I come from as well other cultures. Thinking about this in theory is great and I witnessed my parents do it when I was growing up – however, I think we can all agree that the world our parents grew up in and worked in is not the same world we are in. Life is very different and after receiving an email from a reader as well as conversations I had had recently with very close people in my life on this issue, I think this expectation is unsustainable. Life is very different now with many adult children still living with parents due to job insecurity, health issues as well as other factors – this is happenning even in cultures where most people move away from home when they reach adulthood.

I had a reader reach out not too long ago about the expectation on him to provide financially for ageing parents and the impact this was having on his life. My reader explained that his parents had three children but they lost a sibling when he was a teenager and it’s now him and his sister. He explained that, he had been providing financially for an ageing mother who was now living with his sister and her family. He explained that his sister was a stay at home mother and was not financially independent; so last year, after the death of their father, she helped care for their mother by having her stay with her and her family. However, with covid, he had lost some business and with two children both in higher education, providing monthly for their mother was becoming a bit difficult. He was feeling the strain but this was the expectation in his culture and he felt he needed to do his duty as a son but he was struggling. He had suggested that they sell their parents home to use to care for their mother – but his sister did not agree with his suggestion. I could tell from his email that he was frustrated and torn between doing what was expected and what was best for him and his family.

I had a similar conversation with a couple of people who are very close to me and even though they no longer lived in the culture we grew up in with their parents – it was still expected of them to provide for their parents. Both these people were just setting out in life after university and starting families. The added pressure of providing for parents was proving challenging for these people, but it was an expectation and if they didn’t do it, then they were putting their parents in poverty. While talking to these close friends of mine, I could hear what they were saying but then I also suffered from the same notion and it was difficult to think along different lines. I however could also understand their frustrations – I did not have a parent I needed to provide for financially as the one parent I had alive has a reliable pension and I did not feel the pressure to provide for my dad financially. Anything that went from me to him was a gift and he did not expect it from me – but I knew too well of this expectation as I had witnessed my mother and her siblings provide for my grandmother till she passed. So I was torn between a culture that expected children to care for parents when they started earning and the reality of life that has seen more adult children living at home due to the rise in living expenses and lack of job security.

While speaking to another friend who was not from my background, they expressed shock at the notion of having to provide for her parents as well as try to live her own life. To help her understand, I explained how in certain parts of the world, pensions are not secure and after many years of working and saving, most peoples pensions were not enough to live on for a month. There was also the added responsibility of healthcare that increased as we get older and this was not free – plus social care in some places was not available even after people had contributed. Also, in a world where healthcare and social housing were not free, how comfortable would people be seeing their parents struggling in their old age? However, the answer to that question was more burdensome to me because of the cultural I had grown up in – for my friend, she did not ask for her parent to birth her. In short, she was telling me that she was not responsible for her parents – they had brought her up and it was her responsibility now to live an independent life where she did not need to rely on her parents and also raise her own family. She did admit that she may be needed to care for a parent due to ill health, but that was something she would dicuss with her siblings and they would choose a solution that was good for both their parents and themselves. She made it sound so simple even though she would admit that it would not be an easy decision to make – but from where I was coming from, her way of thinking on the issue was simpler.

I think this is the only story I had struggled to write since I started blogging – and for the first time, I did not have any questions for my reader who got in touch. I could understand where they were coming from and I could also understand the expectations on him and his sister. For the other two people I had spoken to, they had dialogued with their parents about the struggles they were facing and had tried to manage the expectations of their parents. For them, suggesting that their parents downsized and use some of the money from downsizing for their care seemed like the way forward. The children would only step in when they needed extra cash. Initially, the conversation did not go down well because they were asking their parents to sell their family home and move into a smaller flat, also a tradition was being broken – however, the parents understood eventually. But for my reader, I could not see how they would resolve the difficulties they were facing. So using the example of my friends who used dialogue to reach some level of understanding, I suggested he goes back and speak to his sister. The key to getting his sister to understand was to be honest with her about his current financial situation – or alternatively, rent out their parents home and use the income from the rent to support their mother. And while he mentioned that there were family that currently lived in the home rent free (we need to discuss family that leech off us – a topic for another day), it would serve a better purpose if they got those non-paying family out and generated some income from the house. This also made me wonder what his options would have been if his parents did not own property!

This is a difficult topic because it is family – but we also need to be honest with ourselves and take on what we can instead of shouldering responsibilities that may leave us in a bad place financially.  I have not even scratched the surface of having to care for an elderly parent who is having health issues – the pressure of being a caregiver and the impact on ones life is not something I can articulate well in this article. I have first hand witnessed the added pressure of caring for an elderly relative especially in a culture where sending parents to a care home is frowned upon. In some countries, caregivers are given a bit of financial relief to eliminate some of the financial pressure but what about places where this is not in place? While reflecting on all these conversations, it made me realise how we need to do better as a generation and invest in our own future and therefore taking the responsibility off of our children as best as we can. Pensions may be unreliable and if you live in a country where there are no social measures in place to support those less privileged, then we must find new ways of making sure that our futures are secure. 

Let me know what you think on this subject, especially if you are from a background like mine where there is an expectation to care for your parents in their old age. Thank you for always taking time to read, like and comment – please continue to share your experiences so we can effect the change we need.

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