Approximately 54.4 million people in the United States provide care for a loved one. These family caregivers often do not identify themselves as caregivers.
In some cases, family caregivers do not differentiate their caregiving role as different from any other daily activity. Caregiving is simply a part of life.
“The technical word for it is filial piety,” says Hellen, reaching for a cup of tea and sitting back in her great-grandmother’s armchair. “And filial piety, to explain it simply, is the notion of complete and total respect for our family, especially our elders.”
Hellen is a Chinese-American living in a three-generation home on Long Island. Her mother, Kami, bought the house many years ago.
“Think about it,” Hellen says smiling and takes another sip of the oolong tea while offering me a piece of cake. “Without our elders, would we even be here? No. We owe them our lives, and our respect for gifting us with those lives.”
Kami, her mother, nods in agreement. Hellen continues: “And I wouldn’t want to leave this house, or my family, for anything.”
Caregiving in Chinese Culture
Caregiving is a natural occurrence in Chinese culture. In many Chinese families, parents move in with their children when their children get married. The parents help raise their children’s’ children, and, when the parents themselves need care, their children are prepared to care for their parents until the end of their life.
Caregiving is not seen as a chore, or as a new role. It’s simply another step in the long, continuous life of a family. It is an expected stage that reoccurs every generation as the next parents become grandparents and their children become parents. This tradition of “filial piety” that Hellen and Kami speak of is as prevalent today in Chinese families as it was hundreds of years ago. Confucius, the famous Chinese philosopher, championed this respect for elders and many Chinese families opt to follow these ancient principles.
“I want to see every graduation and new baby that I can,” Kami says.
“And she will,” Hellen smiles, putting her hand on her mother’s leg.
In the United States, Chinese-Americans continue to honor elders. But they are not the only group that maintains physically close ties with their parents and grandparents. As a matter of tradition, seniors are respected and honored.
Caregiving in Latino Cultures
Esmeralda has much the same to say on the topic over a plate of paella she insisted I snack on while we chatted in her kitchen.
“We call it familia,” she says, refilling my plate.
“I know,” I respond, “I took Spanish in high school, it means family.”
“Yes, but it’s not just a normal family, you see. Latino familia is every member of the family, cousins, aunts, uncles, and the whole bunch. We believe in strong, tight family, no matter how many of us there are.”
The traditional organization of the family, Esmeralda tells me, includes the father as head of the family, with the mother as head of the home. As a family grows too big for the house, the sons and daughters will move next door, staying as close as they can to their original family.
“What about when it comes to taking care of your parents?” I ask her.
“My mother took care of her madre and padre when I was young, and now I’m taking care of her. Abuelos and abuelas [grandfathers and grandmothers] are important to children; they teach them all the lessons and rules for life. I would never want to take my mother away from my kids. They love her so much.”
Esmeralda also mentions that, in America, this family unit helps her to support her mother financially. “After all the help she gave me when I was younger, I want to help her too, so she doesn’t have to work when she’s too old.”
Caregiving in African American Culture
As I talk to Kia over the phone about how African Americans view their elders, it feels as though I never left Hellen’s living room, or Esmeralda’s kitchen.
“In African history, families stayed together, no matter how big they grew. We had families of more than 50 people starting their own villages, with the eldest grandfather and grandmother leading the rest. In America, we can’t do that exactly, but we can keep the love and respect alive in other ways.”
Kia’s mother and father live at home with her husband and their three kids. “You don’t think of it as caregiving, I guess,” she says as she clears her throat, “They’d take care of us if we needed it, and if they need help, we’ll give them all the help they need. And in return, they spend time with my kids, help to look after them when we’re at work.”
Neither Kia, Hellen, nor Esmeralda knew what the term “Caregiver” or “Family Caregiver” meant, and with good reason. To them, “caregiving” is simply a natural part of life, and respecting the family unit. It’s not something that needs a special name…it simply is what it is.
In traditional Chinese, Latino, and African-American households, moving far away from family may not be the norm. When you’re never expected to separate from your parents, as in the African, Hispanic and Asian cultures, caregiving is a normal process in the grand scheme of life, so children born into these cultures expect to do as their parents did—and the parents’ parents did.
“Remember,” says Hellen, “without Kami, I wouldn’t be here. And without me here, Jimmy and Amy wouldn’t be alive. If you look at it that way, we owe the world to our elders.”
Esmeralda says, “Family is the most important thing we can have. It’s the people we trust and love and can depend on. My mom can depend on me, and, in time, I can depend on my kids.”
“Family is sacred to me,” Kia says, “and I know family is sacred to my parents.”
These are only three examples—so many cultures celebrate the circle of life. Honoring these traditions is often the foundation of a strong family. When we become caregivers, no matter what culture we are from, we incorporate many of these traditional beliefs of honor and value for our elders.
When we become caregivers, and we introduce our aging parents into our homes, we show our children the value of respecting those that gave us life, and we learn from the wisdom of our elders. Together, as a family, we grow stronger.