|This summer produced a horrific news story about an estimated 11,000 mostly elderly French people dying from heat-related illness as their families and younger friends took their traditional August vacations. The elderly were literally trapped not only in their own apartments, but also in nursing homes, many of which in France are not air-conditioned, 100 degree-plus temperatures notwithstanding. Many vacationers had apparently elected not to interrupt their travels to check on their housebound relatives, although some later complained that government authorities hadn’t tried hard enough to reach them. There were also complaints that the nursing homes were too understaffed to handle this annual tucking away of old people, in part because many administrators, nurses, and physicians were themselves on holiday.
French media portrayed all this, understandably, as a profound national embarrassment. For a while there was even talk of canceling one national holiday and dedicating the tax proceeds exclusively to responsible eldercare; at press time, some unions were having a problem with this.
It is tempting to feel superior to the French (especially since they so often seem to express similar sentiments about us). But, in thinking a little more about the situation, one wonders if we could get away with feeling superior. Yes, air conditioning is more prevalent in this country, and recent smaller-scale tragedies in American cities have led to a spate of “awareness journalism” on caring for the elderly in extreme hot weather. But what about the attitudes exhibited by the French toward grand-mFre et grand-pFre this August-are they somehow peculiarly French?
There’s no question that more and more American boomers are just beginning to encounter what it means to care for an elderly person. It would be unjust to level against them a general charge of neglect-most of these women (and some men) are sacrificing mightily to do their duty and show their love. But it can be a trial-the cultural clashes, the mutual frustrations, the focus on disability day to day, the talking louder and walking slower than one ever imagined possible as an adult.
The nagging question for these caregivers (and I’m one of them) is, how much of our lives and fortunes are we willing to sacrifice for this? That question is not only personal, but also social and political, and is just beginning to get that level of attention. Will we avoid the hard lessons of the French? Dieu, help us. NH