Keeping it in the family

Sarien Clark and her parents on her wedding day
Sarien Clark and her parents on her wedding day

I recently wrote about my thoughts on caring for the elderly in What Should We Do With Old People?

Yesterday I shared Fiona Dowie’s experience in caring for her parents on this blog. Fi moved her folks to Johannesburg from Durban where they lived for 34 years to a retirement village.  Sarien Clark’s parents live with her sister on her property in Pretoria. I have known Sarien for over 10 years now and she has always been a typical ‘family’ person. There is never a special occasion that goes by that is not shared with her siblings and her parents. She also cooks up a mean feast – but I don’t think that’s the reason why her family gravitate to her so much…

Although Sarien is sharing her family experience in this post she also spent 14 months caring for children in Israel and after that moved to the UK where she cared for the elderly in Oxford and London for 2 years.

This is Sarien’s Story:

My name is Sarien Clark, I was born and raised in Heidelberg Gauteng, a small town south of Johannesburg on the way to Durban. I currently work and live in Johannesburg and am married with two children, both girls.

I was lucky enough to know and grow up with my great-grandmother and grandparents on both my parents’ side of the family. Unfortunately they have now all passed away, but I am still lucky enough to have a step grandmother whom I love and appreciate a lot. I am also in the fortunate position to have both my parents alive and well, retired and living on my sister’s property in Pretoria.

Growing up within an Afrikaans culture I was taught to treat the elderly with respect and dignity.

Their needs were always important and we had to spend a lot of time with them and make an effort to visit them at least once a week. They were wise beyond their years and had so much to share and teach us as children.

My views have not changed much since I was a child, I was fortunate enough to have amazing grandparents who loved us very much and taught me a great deal about life, unconditional love, hardship and how to deal with it, compassion, being humble as well as what a family bond really means. They were the foundation and the rocks that kept the family together, since they have passed away it is almost as if the broader family structure disappeared and we hardly now get to see the extended family, except for at funerals or weddings.

My grandparents played a great role in my life, I have so many fond memories and traditions they created and that I can now share with my children. They made me fall in love with old people, giving me a sense of responsibility and showing me the true value they add to our lives as kids and grownups.

Sarien's 1st born and her daughters' great-grandfatherThe only person in my family that had to go to an old age home was my great grandmother due to her being too frail towards the end of her life at 96 and she needed some special nursing care at that stage. In our family we don’t believe in our elderly going to old age homes if the children are capable to look after them when they can’t be independent anymore. They obviously don’t want to be a burden, but there is a huge sense of responsibility within our family and probably most of the Afrikaans communities and culture.

My grandparents on my father’s side went to live with my aunt during the last few years of their lives and she was then supported by the other brothers and sister. My grandmother on my mother’s side passed away many years ago due to cancer, but my grandfather re-married and they lived together till his death. If he did not re-marry he would have also been looked after or would have moved in with one of his daughters to look after him.

My parents are still independent, and live on the same property as my sister, if circumstances would change for any reason they would then move in with me or my brother. We will always take care of them.

I think society has become very selfish and life in the big city is so rushed that people just don’t make time for the elderly anymore.

The spaces we live in seem to also become smaller and less accessible for elderly people to live with the families.

In many instances families are leaving the country and for various reasons the elderly can’t go with them which leaves them with the ‘safer’ environment of an old age home.

I asked Sarien what she feels are the benefits & negatives of old people going into old age homes?

I think the benefits are that they get special care (weather medical or meals etc) they might need and they are also in an environment where they are among peers. They can spend time with people of their own age and interests and in some of the better old age homes excursions and events are organised for them. They don’t get that lonely and is within a safe environment. I would think the biggest negative might be that they are forgotten by the family a lot quicker than if they lived with them. It’s more of an effort to see them and therefore they see less of the people they love and care about. I also think they age quicker in an old age home, they tend to adopt other elderly people’s negativities, see their peers and friends pass on – regularly, and are more in contact with death and illness. They don’t get out enough and are stuck in the same environment day in and day out since most of them are not allowed to drive anymore.

… and, benefits & negatives of old people living with their family members?

Sarien's step-grandmotherI think the benefits are definitely that they still feel valued and important and part of this world being among the people they love. I think they feel as if they still have a purpose in life. A negative could be that they are lonely since the family gets on with life and what they have to do on a daily basis and the elderly don’t have enough contact with their peers. Sometimes they might have special needs that can’t be accommodated by the family and they would then suffer.

Old people become like babies (having been a care taker earlier on in my life I know this) and they need the same amount of attention, care and patience to be dealt with, and families don’t always have the time to do so….many times the care of the elderly person at home is left to the domestic or some other care giver. I also thing they feel a lot of guilt and that they are a burden on the family.

I think we were blessed having our grandparents around for the time we did and being close to them just made them more special…through the good and bad times. I would do it all over again, but just do more for them and show the appreciation I now feel after they have passed.

I would do anything to get them back and ask all the questions I could never ask, all the stories they had to tell and advise they could give me in life at this point in time.

Thank you Sarien for sharing your story with me and allowing me to publish it here on my blog.

Also on this blog:

Please take care when commenting on this blogpost – this is my friend and I respect her decision no matter how different it may be to my own.


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