When a little help can go a long way
My mother fought cancer for over three years. She went through a surgery, radiation treatment, chemotherapy and then another surgery. Because I had to make living for the family, my sister was in charge of caring for the sick mother. My sister was a senior in the university, but she could hardly attend classes. Being a good daughter, she endured the hard days in the hospital, but we all couldn’t help becoming exhausted both physically and mentally. By the time my mother passed away, we had all grown so tired that we could not feel the devastating grief of losing mother properly.
About ten years later, my mother-in-law was also diagnosed with cancer and went through a similar ordeal. My two sisters-in-law took turn to provide care, and I would visit my husband’s family in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province every weekend. I was sacrificing the only time I could take time off from work and stay home, but still, I felt guilty. While I was sharing the financial responsibility, I felt I was not fulfilling my duty as the wife of the eldest son by not being there with the sick mother-in-law.
A few months ago, I had another chance to stay overnight at the hospital, this time by my sick child. I slept on the trundle under the patient’s bed. There were four beds in the room, and the bed next to my child was occupied by an elderly patient. She struggled with pain through the night, and she was attended by a hired caregiver. When I offered a cup of tea to the caregiver, she said that as many children and their spouses are working, a caregiver like herself is hired for elderly patients, but some seniors feel ashamed not to be cared by their children. A Korean saying goes, “A long illness wears out even a good son’s filial devotion.” In other words, you can only tell the sincerity of filial devotion when you have serious illness. Caring for a sick parent has been considered the norm of traditional filial piety. So some older people cannot swallow the fact that they are left to the care of strangers.
While the trend is changing, 20 of the 27 devoted sons and daughters chosen by the Ministry of Health and Welfare for the Parents’ Day were daughters-in-laws who care for the sick parents suffering from cancer, stroke or Alzheimer’s disease. Their life stories are full of challenges and hardships, and they deserve great praises and consolations. However, it is still backward to use the same old standards of filial piety and make the devoted daughters-in-law as model since the social structure, family dynamics and values have changed drastically. Even among those daughters-in-law who received the honor for Parents’ Day, some may have chosen a different life if they were more financially affluent or were provided with better social benefits.
The elderly issue in Korea has already passed the stage where problems can be overcome with sacrifice and devotion of good daughters-in-law. Instead of encouraging the daughters-in-law to continue to set an example, a realistic assistance should be provided so that they can be freed from the exhausting burden. Allowing a leave of absence to care for sick family member or expanding the free caregiver service would be able to provide solutions.
*The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Lee Na-ree
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