Monday, August 27, 2007

Older is really harder to do

26 Aug 2007, ST

By Bertha Henson

LATELY, my mother has been bugging me to adopt a child. Not to worry, she says, she will do all the child-rearing. And I can carry on working all I want.

Which makes me wonder why I should adopt a child in the first place. Then she tells me, it is an 'insurance policy'.

She belongs to the generation which cleaves to the idea that the children's job is to take care of their parents in their old age. Tables turned, role reversal, part of the cycle of life. Enough said.

Would that life were so simple.

Dear Mum, a child or two is no longer a guarantee of a comfortable old age. Children have their own children, making up that sandwich class who complain about being hardly able to breathe trying to cater to three generations.

But think deeper and there is another change at work - values are changing, too.

Ask anyone if he or she would take care of their parents later in life and of course, the answer is yes. Ask if they are now giving their parents an allowance and I am not so sure what the answer will be.

It used to be that the first thing a child does when he or she goes out to work is to 'give money' to parents.

It was an automatic, reflex action, done maybe to relieve parents of some financial burden or simply to watch their faces fill with pride when the money is handed over.

I know of children - mainly those in my, aahhh, near-to-middle-age group - who part with half or almost all their monthly salary, especially if they're still living under their parents' roof.

But I also know that many younger ones do not, citing reasons such as 'my parents don't need it' or 'it's money I worked for'.

Their undemanding, uncomplaining parents are probably just happy that their grown-up children have some earning power.

Mostly educated up to tertiary levels, they don't like to ask, especially after affording everything from maids to tutors all their lives.

They are probably the ones who used to tell relatives about how Ah Boy or Ah Girl worked at McDonald's to get themselves that Guess bag.

When I hear such talk, I always ask: Do they give you money?

The answer would be in the form of a moral: I don't need it but I am making sure my children know the value of hard work. To know that nothing comes for free.

Great, but what about the value of giving something back to your parents?

I digress.

The thing is, growing old is getting hard.

When the proposed Mental Capacity Bill was opened for discussion, I wondered about the state of the family. Has it come to pass that people have to be 'nominated' as care-givers? Are bonds of family and kinship not strong enough, but need the safeguard of the State to ensure no abuse?

It was the same feeling I had when the Maintenance of Parents Act came into force some years back. Errant children must be made to maintain their parents, yes, but why so many errant children to warrant legislation?

Okay, I admit the Mental Capacity Bill works for me. With no child to depend on, I had better think hard about who should be my carer when I am in my demented dotage.

But it was the Prime Minister's National Day Rally speech which brought home to me how difficult growing old is.

Admit it. Didn't you do a quick mental calculation on whether you would be affected by the gradual raising of the retirement age and CPF draw-down age?

I know I did.

I consoled myself that I had a choice. It is the employer who must offer terms of re-employment, not the employee who is obliged to stay on.

Then again, with your Central Provident Fund minimum sum locked up for longer, you have to keep working. Unless you are so prescient in financial planning that you have accumulated enough to live on - minus CPF. Kudos to you!

When it comes to the offer of re-employment some time down the road, I wonder how I will react?

Already, I see the pain on people's faces when they hit that big birthday age of 60 and have to be told that their salaries and CPF amounts will go down hence. Just imagine, you are worth less today than you were yesterday.

Perhaps, by the time I hit retirement age, I will be poor and lonely and so grateful to have a job, any job, at any salary.

It is the case for several old folk now, who want a job but can't get one.

Let me re-phrase that, they need a job to keep body and soul together, not merely to keep active. Work is not a choice.

I say this because there will be those who, after decades of running the treadmill, want the option of kicking back and relaxing, and doing all the things they dreamt of doing before they become absent-minded, weak in the knees and half-blind.

I wonder how many of us can exercise this choice amid financial security in future?

My mother has the answer: Have children, who will take care of you. Then their children will take care of them, and their children's children...

But what she really means is this: It is time to reset those values. If children are working and give you money, take it. If they don't, just ask.

And no, Mum, I am still not adopting children.

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