Providing care for Haitian parents as they age leaves many adult children with few ideal options
The phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” is an old African proverb that conveys the idea that it takes many people to create a safe and healthy environment. It was brought to many Americans’ consciousness when then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton penned a book by that name in 1996.
In the Haiti of my adolescence, it was a place where the village did raise you. Our home was intergenerational with my aunt and grandma living under the same roof. As the youngest sibling, my older cousins would get out of the task of taking grandma to church on Sundays.
The chore was left to me. Losing her sight and balance, she needed support and guidance. Unbeknown to my cousins, grandma would give me candy money to sweeten the pot.
Last week, The Haitian Times published an article about how in the U.S., my generation is struggling to adapt to this country’s realities when it comes to caring for our graying parents. I crossed that road a few years ago when I became the decision maker for my ailing mother. At first, it was awkward because she had been giving me orders most of my life. It didn’t matter to her that I was in my mid-50s. I was and would forever be her little boy.
As her health declined, I made the tough decision to place her in a nursing home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, near where I lived in Westchester County. Watching her deteriorate mentally and physically was gut wrenching. A vivacious and a bon vivant, my mother, Yvette, lived life in full. But an unobtrusive view of the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge, did not bring her the serenity I craved for her.
The nursing home diagnosed her with having “deep depression.” It was rubbish and I knew it. They wanted to give her drugs to zombify her even more. I refused to authorize any prescription. Frankly, I was the one who was depressed as I watched my mom’s rapid mental decline.
As I made my weekly visits to the nursing home, she spent most of the day in bed, punctuated by meals from the staff and drug cocktails dispensed by the nurses that kept her alive. Drugs that were killing her spirits.
As her only child, I wanted better for her. My achievements in life are directly tied to the values that she instilled in me. I tried unsuccessfully to have her move in with us. This saying became her refrain: “Gran moun pa reté ak gran moun.” That is, grown people don’t stay with grown people.
A joyful pre-homegoing
Since having her move in with me was out of the question, I had only one other choice. Two of my cousins had made the painful decision of sending their moms to Les Pavillons de l’Age d’Or, a nursing home in the Frères neighborhood of Pétion-Ville.
I was quite familiar with the place, as I visited my aunts there every time I was in Haiti, which was often back then. My mom used to talk incessantly about her desire to return to her beloved Haiti. So I decided that being near her sisters in Haiti would fulfill those wishes.
My mom had been in Haiti for just a few months when she came back to New York for her medical checkups. When we saw her at the airport, we were stunned by the way she looked. It was as if we had sent a corpse to Haiti, but there was a lively person staring at us. She was vibrant and smiling, happy to see us. The feeling was mutual.
She was happy to be back home and with her sisters, on top of it. She was the life of the party at the nursing home. She held court regularly with the staff, sharing stories about her life in New York as they listened intently and at times laughed. She would sing and dance on the nursing home grounds, to the horror of her more reserved sisters. She loved people and didn’t care about their class, race or ethnicity. My mother, in Haitian parlance, was a democrat, not an aristocrat.
I’m thrilled that she did finally get to enjoy her golden years. She passed away at dawn in December, on the 31st day, in 2017. She was born on April 7th 1939, on a Good Friday, when my grandma went into labor watching a rara band celebrate the festivities.
A new opportunity to face the end
I thought that as my generation becomes the decision makers for our parents, sending them back to Haiti at a nursing home would make sense. Private care in Haiti would be a challenge because caregivers would struggle to adhere to the dietary restrictions that most elderly face. A little bit more spice, a sprig of thyme or a dash of oil won’t hurt anything, they would reason. Depending on the person’s conditions though, it could be fatal.
When or if life returns to normal in Haiti, I truly believe that this is an opportunity for entrepreneurs to consider investing in. The Central Plateau region is one place that is ideally suited for such a project. Haiti’s best hospital is in the area. It is serene and bucolic, away from the madness that is Port-au-Prince.
You can create a sort of Villages, the popular chain of retirement communities in Florida that cater to seniors and the elderly.
I don’t know who took my place escorting my grandma to church when I left Haiti, but given that I was her favorite grandchild, I’m sure she kept her money to herself. It takes a village.