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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

How Ethnic Background & Upbringing Has Shaped My Perspectives About Elder Care In Positive Ways

The most vivid memory I have of my grandfather, Koichi Aoyama, an immigrant from what was called then Nakaizumi-machi, Shizuoka-ken, Japan is a mental picture of him from the late sixies calling out to his single, unmarried second daughter, Anne Kazuko, while lying in his bed in the South Seattle apartment they both shared.

He asked her in Japanese, "Who are these people?" referring to the family of his youngest child and second son, Frank Susumu, who had come to pay their respects to the eldest living member of the family on that particular afternoon. Although we'd all stopped by Grandpa's room at the beginning of our visit, on the way into the living room for a cup of tea and crunchy Japanese rice crackers, he had all but forgotten.

This visit stands in my mind as of the most significant ways my brother and I were introduced to old age. Our grandfather was born in 1881. We had come into the world in the mid-fifties. Although grandfather had learned to speak English following his immigration to the United States in 1905, during the period I relate what conversation he attempted was in Japanese.

My aunt frequently told us it was a blessing that grandfather didn't remember much about what was happening to him spending more of the few waking hours of his day reliving his youth. I remember my mother telling us that the whole family could be thankful that Dad's sister, our aunt, was willing to take-on the full-time job of caring for grandfather 24/7, a project that would eventually span some fourteen years.

If memory serves, placing grandfather in a nursing facility was out of the question. Where would we find an institution who would serve portions of rice and salted pickles that he liked daily and attend to the small requests when spoken in his native tongue?

While attending college I became aware in my Asian-American studies class at the university that older men and women who shared grandpa's immigrant past, the Issei (first-generation) often did not thrive in commercially run care institutions partly due to the same preferences.

S0, there was talk about concerned people in the Japanese-American community in Seattle to set up and run their own ethnically sensitive nursing center as was being done by equally concerned community members in the State of California to allow our elders who needed such services to spend what remaining days they had in comfort and dignity.

It was our duty we were frequently reminded, to take care of our elders the way they had unfailingly taken care of us. There wasn't a month that didn't go by when I was reminded what a hard life the grandparents had endured in order to make a future for their children and grandchildren in this country. We took pride in their efforts as well and were encouraged to do the same in return.

In such an environment Seattle Keiro (keiro in Japanese means respect for the elderly) at was born. Seattle Keiro is under the umbrella of a yet much larger organization known as Nikkei Concerns. According to its website the mission of Nikkei Concerns is to "provide health and related services in a traditional atmosphere to primarily elderly Nikkei (Japanese) in the Pacific Northwest. Over the years the organization has maintained a distinctly Japanese-American identity while welcoming members of diverse ethnic communities."

It is a model that has been emulated in years since by equally concerned local citizens in the both the Chinese and Korean communities. It may well still stand as a model of how contributions from the diverse citizens and nationalities who have come together in our multi-cultural society may offer variations upon the standard to future consumers of tomorrow.

Growing up in such a climate was a blessing for myself in more ways then one. When the day came to celebrate grandfather's life after he died at the age of 95 during the bicentennial year celebration of his adopted country, my family and I were comfortable when a perfect stranger was asked to officiate at a small memorial service.

This stranger was a native of Japan and immigrant to the United States just as grandfather. He began his address admitting he knew very little about the man whose life he was asked to celebrate. After which he launched into a short speech about his own life and experiences in this country.

I used this anecdote in an essay I wrote later that year and concluded the paper with the remarks it was a fitting address, and though the circumstances were startling to me at first,
by the conclusion of the stranger's remarks I believed whole-heartedly that my grandfather would have understood.

Readers are invited to share their own educational curve of the general topic. There is not enough conversation during most days about how we intend to address those matters that go along with getting old and even less about how we will make them happen. Whatever your age and life experiences please feel welcome to post your own thoughts, hopes, worries and impressions.


Lorraine Hart said...

I've come back to this post so many times, Mizu. Each time the conversation has gone a different way, though my heart gets gripped the same. My mother (between us lies a turbulent history) slips more behind the curtain of dementia. Her biggest fear has always been to be abandoned by her family to a nursing home...her nightmare version of one.

The family home is dangerous to her now, though neither parent would hear anything in years past about downsizing, at least to a one level. Now we have an eighty-five year-old woman coming down the stairs on her backside...with her eighty-six year-old husband in front of her, thinking he could catch her if she falls.

We all walked away from difficult conversations when we should've had them. In defense, difficult conversations in my family have always turned quickly to absolute madness.

That having been said, my siblings and I still want to help take care of them so that they can remain independent as long as possible. We want to honour and respect them...because they are our parents and we, in the middle of our lives, grapple with both ends. We begin to understand more about unconditional love, becoming parents and grandparents ourselves.

This is one to another....

Lorraine Hart said...

My beloved friend, Grey Wolf, spent the last two years of his life in a nursing home just outside Cranbrook, BC. This beautiful place was specifically for First Nations Elders, next to the St. Mary's Band (Tribal) Office. His room looked out over the garden, then a large field with the backdrop of the Steeple Mountains in the distance.

The first time I came to visit, I came as a home on my back...some would call it a van-camper. Margaret, the head nurse of the home would not hear of it.

"We don't let family sleep in their vehicles here. You will have the room next to Grey Wolf's."

I was amazed and delighted to become part of the family, meeting so many Elders who were filled to the brim with stories, once you were introduced.

Grey Wolf was the first Elder to pass in this home, in 1997. My daughter and I joined the staff in a Spirit Circle. Each of us spoke, in turn, and feasted on his favourite chocolate bar, Mr. Big. We were all family there.

I kept in touch with the staff and was called by family members when other Elders, I had come to know, passed. I would still drop in, should the road carry me in that direction.