Til death do you part, lest ye be judged
The ethos of eternal love is hurting our seniors
Article: Julia Dima – Photographer
When we’re young, happy, and our knees don’t make a popping sound when we try to stand up, anything is possible. We fall in love as easily as we update our Facebook status, and we can easily believe that love is forever.
Culturally, love is seen as eternal. In Canada, federal divorce law did not exist until 1968. The cliché wedding vow reads ‘in sickness and in health, ‘til death do we part.’ Still, nearly half of all marriages in Canada end in divorce.
Nonetheless, the ethos of true and timeless love permeates through culture and hallmark cards.
I come from Eastern European descent where the idea of divorce is still odd. I come from a church where people made snide remarks about my own mother, who divorced when my sister and I were children. I have a grandmother who, at 81 years of age, is the primary caretaker of her husband, who suffers a myriad of health problems that require 24-hour care. We love him and want him at home, because like most lower-income Canadian families, we saw the public health care system long-term care, and paled. We come from a culture where care homes simply don’t exist. You are supposed to take care of your elderly until they die, you are supposed to earn your income to pay for their medical costs, and you would never even imagine ‘abandoning’ your husband in old age. For many cultures, placing your spouse in a care home carries immense stigma. Pair with culturally ingrained stigma a social ethos of eternal love, and you’ve got a recipe for major mental and physical health issues for our senior population.
Being a primary caretaker is a full time job. It requires cooking, cleaning, administering medication, monitoring health, bathing, dealing with slips and falls, and sometimes dealing with behavior changes that can be personally devastating to watch. It’s more work than most healthy adults working full-time jobs do in their whole lives. The difference is that spousal caretakers are often as old as their care receiver, are among the highest at risk to develop psychological health problems associated with care giving, and receive no pay.
Why do so many seniors do this when we do have a public health care system that is essentially specialized in senior health? True love? I hate to be that skeptic, but it’s not love. It’s social obligation. We expect our seniors, especially our grandparents, to be in love forever. Sure, grandma and grandpa don’t share a bed anymore, but they’re the shining beacon for our families, they represent sticking together through the tough times, and they’re the steady spine of the household. They are simply not allowed to be their own individuals with their own personal wants after a certain point in time.
This is especially true in my home. My grandma doesn’t love my grandpa. She actually never has, but her social, political, and economic reality as a young mother of two bound her to this person, and as an uneducated immigrant with no work opportunities and little English skills, she had little choice but to become the matriarch her family expected her to be. She is just one person suffering the psychological and emotional strain of being a caregiver, and she does not want to be. At the end of her life, she still fears the looks she thinks she’ll receive if she becomes ‘that woman’ who put her husband in a home.
The social expectation we place on husbands and wives, especially seniors, to prescribe to the notion of eternal love is killing them emotionally and often physically, as their own health deteriorates as they try to take care of their spouse. We need a health-care system that stands up for its care-takers as much as its patients, and a social system that doesn’t shame seniors for putting themselves first.