Intersections: Strong families face quandary over assisted living

I met Hillary in a coffee shop. Wide-eyed and tired from her long walk, she plopped down on the couch next to me and in one animated declaration about how hot it was outside, started a conversation with me that lasted over half an hour.

We talked about everything: life back on the East Coast, the time she had spent in England, how taxing it was to ship her car across the country, the admirable honesty of young children, her take on all the movies she had seen in a bid to cure some boredom and the pains of navigating L.A.'s public transportation network.

Her oversized black button earrings glowed like orbs from her ears. She said she liked my scarf. I asked about the book she was carrying under her arm.

As we talked, I realized how refreshingly enjoyable it was to have conversations with random, regular strangers about life. And then she mentioned her parents — one with Alzheimer's, both in separate nursing home facilities at the moment. She had just visited her mother, where they enjoyed a great lunch together and had now come to explore her new neighborhood.

I thought about my own family's experience with dementia, how it turned my grandmother into someone we didn't know. How it turned us into strangers, too. And how, when the disease progressed into something more than what her children could handle, putting her into an assisted living facility was never an option. It was unthinkable.

In immigrant families with strong family bonds, it usually is. It's a world where blood isn't just thicker than water. It is the very tangible symbol of what defines you. Your existence depends on your family. And its existence depends on you. There is no moving out when you hit 18, or paying rent if you happen to move back in.

The notion of making big decisions in your life — like your career or who you end up marrying — is a matter that is regularly and annoyingly up for debate. Bring out the tea, Ferrero Rocher and fruit, because your life could be up for discussion by a group of adults who helped rear you.

You don't just listen to their advice. You take it. And not because they know better, but because it's a sign of respect. Because they deserve it. Because they gave up their lives in their own countries to give you a better life in this one. Because family and the ties that bind it are your No. 1 priority and they never get broken, even in death.

Because having control over each other's lives is a sign of love and a way of ensuring well-being.

So to place a family member, especially your mother, the woman who sacrificed her existence for you, in a nursing home where someone else will take care of her, is straying away from and betraying the very definition of what it means to call each other “family.” This is an omnipresent notion in families all across the greater Middle East, Asia and Latin America, but it might be changing.

Many families are adjusting their attitudes about assisted living as lives get increasingly hectic and as the elderly immigrant population balloons. According to the Pew Research Center, by 2050, the number of foreign born people 65 and older will double, meaning elderly immigrants will make up 16 million of the projected 81 million elderly in the U.S.

While assisted living facilities will need to adjust to meet the growing need of care for a diverse population, adult children of parents will realize that “assisted living” doesn't mean you love your parent any less.

And if you have any doubts, it's nothing that a conversation with Hillary or a friendly stranger won't cure. We might not know each other, or share the same backgrounds, but chances are we are all going through the same thing.

LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at liana.agh@gmail.com.

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