WESTERN cultures often value independence (people relying on themselves to get things done), while South Asian culture often value collectivism (people relying on each other to get things done), and both worldviews have merit. It is likely that those who can use elements of both collectivism and individualism probably function best, given they can adapt to any given situation they face.
Because many South Asian families are collectivist in nature, they tend to live together in extended family households. In a healthy extended family household, several generations are able to live together in harmony (as compared to an unhealthy one, where they live together because they see it as a ‘cultural expectation,’ but members of the household may not get along with each other). Sure, even in healthy extended family households family members may have differences in opinion from time to time, but they are able to resolve these differences in a respectful and constructive manner.
In a healthy extended family household, grandparents in particular are shown great respect. They are, after all, the ones who passed down their values to their children and grandchildren. And their children and grandchildren realize the valuable contributions that the grandparents have made, and make a commitment to care for their elders as they grow older and become less able to take care of themselves. But what happens when a grandparent’s needs become so great that the family has difficulty meeting these needs?
Family members may try to all pitch in and help as much as they can, but if the parents go to work and the kids go to school, there may be large parts of the day when they are not at home to provide the help. Besides, many seniors need specialized care – care that cannot always be adequately provided by family members. Additionally, the stress that comes with taking care of a loved one’s medical or mental health needs (for example, if the family members suffers from dementia that requires constant supervision) can be considerable. Families may be able to access support services for their loved ones, such as nurses or care aides who come to the home to provide assistance to seniors, but when the care is around-the-clock, this approach can be very expensive. When a senior’s needs become this great, it may be time to consider assisted living facilities.
In Western cultures, seniors may move into assisted living homes (also known as retirement or seniors homes) when they are no longer able to live on their own. It’s often not easy for these seniors. While Caucasian seniors valued their independence and are suddenly moving into facilities where they are sharing space (depending on the facility, they may have their own rooms, but may share certain spaces such as TV rooms or dining halls) – a situation they are not used to, South Asian seniors valued the connections to their families and are now moving into facilities where they are separated from these families – a situation they too are not used to. The transition, then, may be difficult for both seniors from the West and those that come from South Asia.
The transition is also difficult for the South Asian senior’s family members. Often the stress the adult children feel can be considerable. For example, they may feel they have failed in their commitment to their parents; after all, back in South Asia, most seniors likely remained with their families until their deaths. However, what they may not realize is that back in South Asia, in a village, the needs of seniors could be addressed by all members of that village. Here in Canada, there are less family members to provide such support, meaning the pressure felt by the adult child is unlike anything felt by an adult child back in South Asia.
While it may be stressful for all family members, it may be in the South Asian senior’s best interests to live in an assisted living residence. There, they can have their medical needs met adequately. And given that more South Asian seniors are living in such facilities, they may also have their social needs met in these facilities as they can socialize with other South Asian seniors. After all, if we truly respect and honour our seniors, we would want what is best for them – whether that means living together under one roof or not – that’s a decision each extended family household will have to make at some point.
Gary Thandi, MSW RSW, Doctor of Education candidate, is a Special Columnist with The VOICE. He writes about emotional wellness and social justice issues as they relate to South Asian communities. He is also head of Moving Forward Family Services that provides counselling and support services to anyone who wants it – without any waits. No one, regardless of their financial circumstances, will be turned away. Services are offered in English, Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, Cantonese, Farsi, Japanese, Mandarin, Russian and Vietnamese. To access services, call or text 778-321-3054 or email him at: