by Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove
We watch a lot of television: sports, dramas, a few favourite sit coms. But for a couple, Dave has to leave and get himself a drink when hit with the writer’s expectation that we all kneel at the altar of Family Values (in Blue Bloods, or Parenthood). I’m not as repulsed, but do bristle when Father pronounces on how things are done “in this family” or “as long as you live under my roof”. Living together does, of course, require some agreed upon rules, and if push comes to shove, the folks paying to keep the establishment going get extra points in the rules stakes. But the integrity of family can have many ways of being maintained, and there are some wonderfully zany approaches in current programming. Modern Family and Raising Hope come immediately to mind, the latter being maybe the best at giving us an open-hearted model of how a family can be supportive of its members AND also open to friends and community.
So that’s what I need to explore. No answers, but a lot of questions. Almost everybody was born into a family but looking around at friends zooming through the OAS and CPP gate, a lot are living alone. There will be more of us as we or our spouses move to the beyond. Is this a norm that we want, that some want, that few want? I have learned how quickly an older person can move from comfortable independence to needing help. Who will provide it? With a lot of money one can buy professional assistance but few of my friends have that kind of money. The question about family now jumps to the forefront. What models of family can absorb and create something good when a member has considerable needs?
A strong tight family can also be an open one. The doors are open (in summer), formal invites aren’t needed to enter, there’s room around the kitchen table and the coffee or tea pot is on. My mother worked full-time for 45 years and our apartment approached this level of welcome (so I don’t buy that the modern working woman can’t cope with neighbourly friendliness). I, however, managed for some years to maintain an open family life, but found as I grew into late middle age that I was less able to open myself to ongoing welcome. The phone rang too often, the needs among aging and struggling neighbours were greater than I could respond to if I was to be ready to deal with more of the same the next day. What was that about? I lived far away from family, and did little to assist them tangibly. How come we shut down – even if just a little??
I absolutely believe that I and others are happier when we let ourselves be open to others and prevent our doors from shutting us away.
Is it Partly a Function of Stage of Life?
Maybe there are stages in family life, as in many things. Here goes, trying to identify some, from the perspective of the child.
- Dependence on the family unit as the source of comfort, safety, nurturance, sustenance. (QUESTION: During this time, is the child learning that other people besides family can provide a lot of that? Is he/she learning that one’s own family can be shared with other people? Does she/he see that parents are also availing themselves of other people’s help or is the rule to be self-sufficient and hold oneself apart from others?)
- Independence is sought and achieved (to varying degrees). In one’s 20’s to 40’s, one’s own family unit is established with, perhaps, a spouse and children or maybe with very close friends who may rival or surpass the importance of one’s family of origin. (QUESTION: Are the original parent or parents welcomed to visit the new family units? Can the family afford to travel between cities – as careers take young adults to new locations – or perhaps to share costs? Do the younger people come en famille to visit ‘home’?)
- In middle and early old age, the foundations of interdependence may be laid, or not. There can be an integration of generations if grandparenting works on both sides. If children aren’t present, there may be shared travel or a single parent may come to live close to the offspring. Income expectations begin to form the options. I think that negotiating this stage is the most difficult but may be based on what has happened earlier. (QUESTION: have the generations been able to bridge the gap in knowledge and experience that naturally separate them? Have both sides tried to accomplish this? Have old grievances been dealt with? Has the elder(s) been able to maintain friendships and a community to which he/she belongs? Is the only ‘community’ now available a professional one, for which services one pays dearly? CAN WE CREATE SOME NEW MODELS HERE, WHERE LIKE-MINDED PEOPLE LOOK AT THE FUTURE TOGETHER?)
- Old age and need – a stage when ideally young and old can be interdependent. The ‘young people’ have lots of responsibilities. The elders have love and experience to offer but they need help, physical and social (family dinners, shared celebrations). Does it work to mutual benefit? No telling. Are the young able and willing to be open to elderly people? If the elder in need has a non-familial social group that holds, it must help a lot. (QUESTION: What about the elder having a social circle that increasingly draws into its own family units, becoming less and less available to mere friends? Can geographical separation be overcome? Are there different kinds of residential arrangements where interdependence is understood?)
Open Circle or Fortress?
There is a continuum in beliefs about the family: from an open circle at one end to a fortress against the outside at the other. Does the ‘fortress’ end contribute to or prevent elderly isolation? The fortress is typified by the family compound, keeping non-members outside (occasional opening of the gates to demonstrate family largesse?). The open family has all kinds of people in its midst. Which keeps an elderly person from becoming lonely? What do you think?