Burnaby Seniors' Resources Society



Between Two Lands: Adult Children Navigating the Cultural Divide

When Parents Grew Up in Another Culture

by Peter Silin MSW, RSW, CCC


Adult children who were either born in Canada or who came here at a young age and whose parents came to Canada as adults have some unique challenges. They are in a sense bi-cultural, having grown up surrounded in the home by their parents' originating values and culture while outside the home they are immersed in those of Canada. This dichotomy arises in families of many cultures including Chinese, South Asian, Filipino, Korean, Mexican, South American and others. This month Elder Voice focuses on bi-cultural children caring for aging parents.

The differences between Canadian and other cultures  regarding eldercare can be significant. One woman wrote to Slate Magazine in May, 2013,  "(In our culture) we have books devoted to various good deeds children did for their parents, and an entire ethical code on how children should behave towards their parents, including: do not disobey, do not travel far while your parents are still living (so you can take care of them), so on and so forth. Adult children are expected to live with their parents, to take care of them."

We frequently see as clients these bi-cultural adult children. They are struggling to navigate between wanting to respect and honour their parents  according to  the family  values and culture while at the same time needing to live and work in Canadian culture. There is often tremendous guilt, shame, anger, and fear  when it appears  they have to make choices. There can also be conflict.  One of our clients said to us, "My mother told me I should quit my job and take care of her. I said no. But she thought I should drop everything that I had worked for."

Pressure happens for differing reasons. For some adult children, family roles and traditions play a part.  For example, an oldest son  may find it harder to accept a work promotion out of town  than his younger brother or sister.  Or  a child whose  English was better  became the  family interpreter. Their parents came to depend and lean on them to navigate outside the home, leading them to feel resentment--"why me?" --and then guilty for thinking this.

Not only do adult children risk shame and censure from their immediate and extended family, they may risk it from the community as well. For some the only solution they can find is to distance themselves from their community.  They are never free of the guilt and loss. Moreover they know that  their parents  may feel shame as the children's actions will be seen  in the community  as a reflection on those parents.

Adult children feel often feel economic as well as emotional pressure. There may be the expectation that children will pay for caregivers and other services or will  invite their aging parents to live with them   As one of our clients noted: "I was lucky I had siblings that could do it, but if I didn't I would have had to have her move in with us (husband and family) and I would have had to hire a caregiver. I don't know what I would have done; we could not afford that."  

Bi-cultural children often find their marriages threatened.  If they choose to fulfill the expectations of their parents, then their partners, no matter how understanding, sometimes feel abandoned and as though they are always second in line. The stress  increases as parents needs become greater. Canadian culture accepts that at some point, the most appropriate option for an aging parent might be seniors' housing or a nursing home.  But as one of our clients told us, "In our culture, we just do not do that."

Parents also go through a struggle. We hear often,  "this is what I did for my parents, and I expected  it of my children." They feel a sense of betrayal and  loss and may even feel that they have failed when they see their children appearing to break from traditional culture and values. There is also fear. Who will take care of me? What will happen? And especially--how will I be taken care of?

Expectations are often unspoken. As one adult son said to us, "No one said this is what I have to do, I just knew it was what my parents expected."

Part of the solution is to make the unspoken, spoken, an approach that may not have even been considered. When concerns are expressed, children sometimes find that their parents understand, and are willing to discuss options. We encourage children  to be very clear about what they can and cannot do, and to work with their family to find solutions.

There are often resources to be found in multicultural or immigrant service organizations with counsellors who  work with families. Sometimes there are community supports that parents can be connected to such as Adult Day Centres, any seniors centre, or within their mosque, temple, or church.  

Adult children who come in for counselling find that  sitting in a non judgmental and accepting environment gives them a place  to find solutions that fit. We help them focus on setting appropriate, but also culturally sensitive, boundaries. We  help them find ways to face their families and communities without the guilt, shame and stress that the struggle brings up  Support groups for adult children such as those from the Alzheimer's Society are especially helpful as participants hear others in the same situation.

Marital counselling is helpful to many adult children who find themselves pulled between parents and spouse. The goal of the counselling is not to "get a partner to understand," but rather to create a place for them to find solutions where both feel valued and heard.

There are times when everyone cannot be satisfied. Sometimes  compromises and solutions  only partly help. But the good news is that many adult children and their parents successfully navigate between two cultures. It helps to remember that despite  cultural differences and economic realities, the relationship between parents and adult children is still founded in respect and love.

Diamond Geriatrics is a Care Management, counselling, and consulting company based in Vancouver, BC. Established in 1995, we are Western Canada's oldest  eldercare consulting company. Call us at  604-874-7764 or visit www.DiamondGeriatrics.



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