Bernardo M. Villegas
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The Joys of Filipino Grandparents

          Among my contemporaries, most of whom are in their seventies and eighties, one of the greatest sources of happiness and fulfilment is to be surrounded by grandchildren (and even great grandchildren) and to help their married children take care of their “apos.”  In fact, a Taglish word has been coined: “apo-stolate” to depict the gratifying task of helping in the upbringing of grandchildren.   I cannot think of other topics on which these friends of mine can talk more enthusiastically and endlessly than the time they spend with their grandchildren and the attention that they lavish on them.   Grandparenting will become more and more part of the daily lives of numerous retired professionals as longevity or life expectancy is expected to increase to 80 to 85 years in the next thirty years, especially among women.  Among the higher-income households, grandparents will assume a greater role in the care of their grandchildren as both husband and wife among the millennials assume full-time professional careers and as nannies or “yayas” become scarcer with the increased industrialization of the country.

         It may be a blessing in disguise that the Philippines still does not have an advanced pension system, especially for middle class and low-income families, so that we can retain for a long time and even indefinitely, the tradition of grandparents residing with some of their married children and continuing to receive care and attention in their own homes (instead of institutions for the aged) as well as to still feel responsible for assuming household chores, especially in the care of their grandchildren.  I have heard so many horror stories about how senior citizens in rich and advanced countries are summarily dumped into homes for the aged and, despite being very well provided for materially or physically, suffer the emotional stress of being visited by family members only infrequently.  I can never forget what my late sister, Maria Victoria, told me about a case in the home for the aged in which she worked as a pharmacist for many years in Toronto.  It was an institution for very well-to-do senior citizens and, therefore, lacked nothing as far as material and medical comforts were concerned.  There was a mother there, however, who was visited only once a year at Christmas by her children.  For the rest of the year, starting in January, that unfortunate creature would be announcing to everyone who cared to listen that she was expecting her children to come again during the next Yuletide season.

         It is unfortunate that not all societies, even those that are still developing, are able to retain the Philippine tradition as regards the role of grandparents.  In a recent article entitled “Parenting by Proxy,” which I read in China Daily (September 22-28, 2017), there was a report about a 63-year-old Chinese woman who was diagnosed with depression from the stress of caring for her grandchildren. This ignited a debate on social media over the “ethics” of young couples foisting their child-raising responsibilities on their aging parents.  The report focused on all the negative aspects of grandparenting:  doing the housework while the married daughter was at work; living in constant fear of accidents or illnesses that the child could suffer under her watch, for which she could be blamed by her daughter or son-in-law; being frequently awakened at night by the grandson; etc.  I am sure these are also worries that can trouble Filipino grandparents.  The spirit of self-sacrifice that is very common among our senior citizens, however, usually helps our elderly to give little importance to the depressing elements and puts the accent on the joys of helping to take care of grandchildren.

         I still remember with gratitude the example of my parents in their willingness to take care of their grandchildren when some of my married siblings needed their help under certain special circumstances.  My mother, who lived up to 102, did not spare any effort in giving all the support to her married children in the upbringing of their respective children.  In turn, my mother who outlived my father by 20 years, enjoyed the bliss of living with one of my married sisters and being in the constant company of her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren until the very end of her life.  I cannot imagine her being “depressed” because of the stress of helping to take care of her grandchildren.  Thanks to her example of giving of herself unselfishly to all of us, we also learned how to care for one another.  In a recent pilgrimage in Spain to the Shrine of St. James the Great in Santiago de Compostella (known as the Camino) with four of my nephews, I had a very concrete experience of how this tradition of caring for one another, inherited from my parents, has taken root in their progeny.

         In his Apostolic Exhortation entitled “The Joy of Love,” Pope Francis wrote about the importance of being attentive to the role of the elderly in families.  He referred to how Saint John Paul II asked us to be attentive to this primordial role because there are cultures which, especially in the wake of disordered industrial and urban development, have both in the past and in the present set the elderly aside in unacceptable ways.”  “The elderly help us to appreciate ‘the continuity of generations’, by their ‘charism of bridging the gap.’  Very often it is grandparents who ensure that the most important values are passed down to their grandchildren and many people can testify that they owe their initiation into the Christian life to their grandparents.   Their words, their affection or simply their presence help children to realize that history did not begin with them, that they are now part of an age-old pilgrimage and that they need to respect all that came before them.  Those who would break all ties with the past will surely find it difficult to build stable relationships and to realize that reality is bigger than they are.  ‘Attention to the elderly makes the difference in a society.  Does a society show concern for the elderly?  Does it make room for the elderly?  Such a society will move forward if it respects the wisdom of the elderly.’ “

            Pope Francis laments the loss of historical memory in our society.  He stresses that memory is necessary for growth.  The elderly help in retaining historical memory: “Listening to the elderly tell their stories is good for children and young people, it makes them feel connected to the living history of their families, their neighborhoods and their country.  A family that fails to respect and cherish its grandparents, who are its living memory, is already in decline, whereas a family that remembers has a future.  “A society that has no room for the elderly or discards them because they create problems, has a deadly virus, “it is torn from its roots.’  Our contemporary experience of being orphans as a result of cultural discontinuity, uprootedness and the collapse of the certainties that shape our lives, challenges us to make our families places where children can sink roots in the rich soil of a collective history.”  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.