|Illustration by Trịnh Lập|
by Nguyễn Mỹ Hà
Việt Nam has one of the fastest growing ageing populations in the world. In 2019, those above 60 made up 11.9 per cent of the country's population. This number shall rise to more than 25 per cent in 2050.
According to the United Nations Population Fund, from 2036 Việt Nam shall be classified as an ageing society, where the elderly make up a large and influential part of society.
This is the result of the country's successful drive to lower birth mortality rates dozens of years ago and the consistent decline in the birth rate.
In about a dozen years, Vietnamese society will have all the issues of an elderly population: lack of a working age population leading to the extension of the retirement age and the needs for healthcare for people of advanced years. More nursing homes are likely to be built.
The longevity of the elderly can be a wonderful blessing for an extended family, where the younger children and grandchildren can take care of their clan's eldest.
"My grandmother is 104 now," says Đặng Thắm, a mother of two teenagers. "She's in great health and as much as I love her, I cannot visit her as much as I could. Once a month is ideal, but I still can't make it sometimes."
But her grandmother lives happily at her son's home, with his family and the adult son's family, which means the great-grandmother is being taken care of by six other people, including grand children.
A popular Vietnamese saying goes, "A mother can raise 10 children, but 10 children cannot take care of one mother!" At times, this is painstakingly true.
In a recent debate, popular film director Lê Hoàng and actor Quyền Linh spoke on TV about how to take good care of one's ageing parents.
Quyền Linh prefers the Vietnamese way of taking care of elderly parents at home, living in the love of their children and grandchildren. He feels strongly about taking good care of one's mother and believes a family shall be cursed if children do not show filial piety to their parents, one of the cornerstone of Vietnamese desired qualities of being a righteous man/woman.
"No, you cannot send your parents to a nursing home if you have a home!" he said.
Lê Hoàng opposed the idea of keeping grandparents at home to stay with their children and grandchildren.
"The elderly must have their own life, their own joys and happiness. Their joys need to go beyond that of their children! If you can afford it, sending your parents to nursing homes can be a relief for both the parents and children," he said.
The fight can go on forever, as each side has their own reasons and arguments. One can never give a proper answer.
"My mother suffered from Alzheimer's for more than 10 years," a friend and middle-aged mother of two told me recently. "She started to have symptoms, and we took her to doctors for help quite early on."
She had her mother living with their nuclear family for 10 years, having domestic helper at the time, until it became too exhausting for both sides, as the mother did not recognise anyone, nor was she aware of what she was doing.
She resorted to sending her mother to an expensive nursing home, where she was quite well taken care of until she fell and broke her hip.
It was a long, painful journey for the woman, who kept wishing her mother could recognise her again, even just once. The memory-losing mother also kept telling her husband, "Who are you? Why are you so kind to me?"
Many of the elderly say they rather stay home to see their children and grandchildren every day. But some disagree and say they would feel like a burden if they sold their home and moved in with one of their children.
Taking care of ageing parents needs not only love, but also understanding, knowledge about elderly health concerns as well as untiring efforts.
"Having just finished one's meal, they then say their children didn't feed them," is a Vietnamese saying about the decline or loss of short-term memory in the aged. Anyone with elderly parents must bear this in mind. It is important to be patient and loving.
If you are in your 50s and 60s taking care of your parents, it's already a stretch because you're still working. If you're in your seventies taking care of centenarian parents, then it's a blessing for you. Though in your seventies, you may have more time, your health may not be up to the task.
In a packed room on a busy main road at a small home appliance business, I recently heard a busy woman telling her mother (or in-law) sitting in a wheelchair to move over as she did not have enough room. The house was literally packed up to the ceiling, and the lady in the wheelchair couldn't move anywhere else. There was a room upstairs, but she wanted to stay downstairs, so she could see other people.
Anyone managing that little space, balancing her business and family while taking care of an elderly person, could lose control and end up being less than exceptionally polite, even to their own mother.
Many would say, send her to a nursing home, where she can be taken care of, meet friends her age and get a health check every day. Children could come and visit when they have time.
If the family can afford nursing home costs, they may choose to do so. The parent may be in better physical health, but not getting to see familiar faces may eventually lead to emotional health issues.
An elderly woman, Thu Phan gave her thoughts about the matter online: "I'm 69 years old now, and I took care of my grandchildren when I retired at 55. When they were little, I took care of them, and when they went to school, I would help them with their homework at night. For me, I feel happy because I have not wasted my life. I feel happy, healthy and useful. But later on, when I get older and need help, whether I'll get help depends on each person's blessing."
Even for the very elderly, a home can have its benefits. They will need to push themselves every day, which will not deteriorate their health but, on the contrary, give more strength, not only to cope with everyday life, but also to strengthen them generally, as long as they are willing to try.
And for us children, we only wish we can do our best to earn enough money to have our parents living with us when they want to, and also be able to afford a nursing home for them if they want it.
Đức Dũng, a middle-aged man, added to the online discussion, saying. "I've been assisting my elder sister to take care of our mother, who has had Alzheimer's for 14 years and has been bedridden for seven. It is my wish to take care of my mother and be by her side when she leaves us. But my wife and I have been saving so that later, we can both go to a nursing home because we don't want our two daughters to suffer taking care of us.
"Then if they insist, we would be thankful to God and to our children. It would be wonderful if they can manage their own families and us. But as our grandparents said, 'Each tree bears its own flower, each family has its own issue'." VNS