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.