x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Siblings ought to share care of elderly

Sons are more prized in some societies, but all children should share responsibility for caring for their elderly parents, says Shelina Zahra Janmohamed.

A friend of mine was visiting her parents in Pakistan recently, when an elderly neighbour popped by. In hardened circumstances, she came regularly to ask the family for financial help.

The presence of the young woman reminded the elderly lady that this was a family of four children, all daughters. She began to commiserate with those from whom she had come to borrow money, saying how sad it was that they had only daughters. If only they had four sons like her. My friend asked why. The lady replied: to look after them in their old age. With no sense of irony, she took the money and departed.

In many cultures, there has always been a preference for sons. Sons brought income, so parental care was their duty and parents often lived in extended households with them. A daughter, on the other hand, was seen by both her own family and her in-laws as belonging to her in-laws. Their possession, she had nothing to contribute to her family. Yet today’s reality of care for elderly parents is that it is increasingly being undertaken by daughters.

It’s time to assert: daughters are just as important when it comes to caring for parents as sons. And if both sons and daughters are (rightly) involved in care, this reality should contribute to a wider social reassessment of the privileges sons get not because they are earned but simply because they are male.

Of course, there are many excellent sons who look after their parents brilliantly, and I’m happy that my brother is one of them. I’m not advocating that we should be down on men, but instead that we should treat sons and daughters fairly – because that is the right thing to do, and because both of their contributions must be recognised.

A study published in the US this week looks at how children care for their elderly parents. The research by a Princeton University sociologist found that while women provide as much care for their elderly parents as they can manage, men do as little as they can get away with, often leaving it to female family members.

Gender is the most important predictor of whether people will actively care for elderly parents. Having a sister makes men statistically likely to provide less care. But women who have male siblings provide more care.

While this is an American study, it is clear that there are global social trends that should make us take notice of the wider reality that women should be given more credit for the care they give.

In the West, increasing numbers of women stay home to look after elderly parents and children at the same time. In the Middle East and Asia, with women increasingly educated, affluent and independent, and marriage ages rising, daughters often remain at home to care for their parents.

A preference for sons is sadly coming back to bite parents in China. The one-child policy coupled with male preference led to baby girls being abandoned or even aborted and sons growing up with a sense of entitlement. Ironically, it is grown-up daughters who are now caring for parents and seen as preferential. The elderly are even “adopting” grown women to be part of their families and care for them.

The old ideas of male preference being built on sons being pension pots is outdated. Today, sons and daughters both play important roles in family care. We need to quash once and for all the idea that daughters are less important.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk