Many years ago, when my father-in-law was in his eighties, his daughters located a young Filipino woman to live-in with him when it became difficult for him to care for his home and himself. The marvellous Zenny lived there for many years, becoming part of the family herself. She cooked, cleaned, helped with the insulin shots and the bathing, and fiddled in the garden. She eventually moved on (into a professional health-care career) and was replaced by her cousin, an equally effective carer. Because my father-in-law was a WWII vet, these costs were carried by the Canadian government. It was a wonderful arrangement that went on for all but the last three months of his life, when he died at 95.
I was reminded of this by an article I read this week, from MacLeans (Canada’s answer to Time magazine). The article was about the implications of the declining birth rates throughout the developed world. As those of us in our fifties, sixties and seventies blithely careen toward old age, a number of factors are conspiring to make that last decade or two an ominous prospect. If you’re in a mood to curdle your recent meal and give yourself a serious worry, have a read of it here. Or you might prefer to just peruse my summary, following, and I promise to cheer you up at the end.
Let’s start with the Philippines. In Canada, there is much talk about the Filipino live-in assistant. It’s not idle talk; I could give you dozens of examples of the idea at work, besides that of my father-in-law. But what I didn’t know, and learned just now from the article, is that an astonishing 10% of the Philippines GDP is comprised of money sent back home by the Zennies of the world. This led me to check, with trepidation, the statistics for the Philippines birth rate. Uh-oh. It has dropped from 6.3 children per couple in 1971 (perhaps around when Zenny was born) to a current 3.1. This is still one of the world’s higher birth rates, but it means there are unlikely to be hundreds of thousands of Filipino carers available to shoot ’round the planet when my generation is in its eighties and nineties. I’ve always had a fond image of the Filipino carer and her handyman husband living in comfort in the guest quarters in our Shed, but the article is disabusing me of the likelihood of that scenario.
Here’s where it gets really serious. Not only is there going to be a dearth of Filipinos, but also no offspring. And no siblings. The advent of low birth rates is seriously catching up with us. It’s apocalyptic, really.
In the United States, it’s estimated that 80% of all aged care is unpaid work provided by family members. The pillar of the caring community is family. But this pillar is collapsing. We’re unlikely to be cared for by our offspring (just as my generation is less likely to provide full care for our parents than their generation was). Our one or two children (if any) often live much farther away and have been trained to be independent of us.
We’re also unlikely to be supported by siblings, as has often been the case in the past. Why? – in great part because we don’t have many of them. My own family is typical of the trend. My mother had seven siblings, not uncommon for the time. I had one sibling, also not uncommon for the time, though many of my cousins come from somewhat larger families. Rick and I have two children, exactly right for 30 years ago but in today’s terms almost looking like a big family.
So – no Filipinos, no siblings and no offspring to care for us. Consider what that means. Without live-in care, my generation is likely to have to use specialised services: drivers, cleaners, nursing aides, home repairmen, emergency services. The bad news is our governments do not have budgets for this kind of thing (remember that 80% of unpaid care until now has lain invisible inside the family home); the tax base is shrinking; the problem is without precedent. The further bad news is that many of us don’t have the personal budgets for the kind of care we’ll require either. We don’t have sufficient savings and our pensions will not stretch to cover it all. Not a pretty picture.
But my optimism has been tweaked by another, developing, source of care. Not offspring, or siblings, or Filipinos. But robots. Many of you will be tempted to regard that as further bad news and stop reading right there – but bear with me. Remind yourself that we are in a true and whole-hearted crisis. Our options are running out and technology might not be such a bad port in the coming storm.
Did you know, for example, that there is a charming little robot that looks like a baby seal? – and “plays games and quizzes, and sings and dances” with old-age home residents. Some of you may already own a robot vacuum cleaner. Vehicle and road technology is only years away from cars that won’t require drivers. Apps already can identify a few bars of music, or a type of tree, or tell you whether a nearby fire is out of control or not. Some of these things will be expensive in their early years, but if they follow the path of other technology, will get inexpensive fast. (I remember as if it were yesterday paying $4000 for my company’s first black-and-white laser printer; Rick and I recently paid just over $200 for a high speed colour one.) If that baby seal robot is affordable, and cute enough, I wouldn’t mind playing cribbage with him, or maybe even a round of Famous Names or Charades. If a “robot” could whisk to my aid when I can’t manage a trip to the loo, or whip me up a tasty meal, or do a little blood test and send off the results, or order my meds, or pick up deliveries, I could be a contented nonagenarian.
Imagine the conversations I’ll be having. “BradPitt! Go check the mailbox now!” “Did I take my meds yet?” “Defrost me a curry for dinner, mate.” “Order me that new red bathrobe.” “Get my friend Ruth on the video-phone.” “Wash the windows and don’t tell me you can’t remember where the long-reach attachment is.”
Perhaps the Shedders need to start a new bank account, the Robot Investment account. The electronics that could make our declining years comfortable might be more than I could afford on my own, but among the six of us could well be feasible – and of course technology, being more inexhaustible than Zenny ever was, could likely cope with the lot of us.
In the meantime, for the next few years we Shedders can likely cook our own meals and handle the cleaning, perhaps even help each other out if a wheel chair gets stuck in the doorframe or a spill necessitates a trip to the hospital. But if our Robot fund is ready, and we keep supporting the advancement of the technologies that can ease our lives and that of our planet, we might have some serious assistance when we need it.
At the moment, I am writing this sentence with pen and paper, curled up in a chair where I can glance occasionally at the cattle grazing down the hill and the breeze agitating the treetops. I could be a friend of Jane Austin, about to hop into my one-horse carriage for a visit and a cup of tea. But in a few moments I will swing into another gear, another century, and these words will find themselves on the internet making their way around the world. I’ll video-chat with my mother (for free) 9000 miles away. My GPS, with her dulcet tones, will direct me to the home of a friend from choir who is throwing a party this weekend. I can watch a movie anytime if I’m inspired to, or purchase a book to read within a minute of wanting it.
Keep making me “robots” I can love, and the future doesn’t look so grim.