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Lois M. Collins: Laws can't force aging parents and kids together

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 6 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

I get the importance of family taking care of each other. But I've also been around enough different types of families to know that you can't mandate caring. You can't force kids to settle in nearby communities where it's an easy walk or drive to see the folks. Nor can you make them responsible for the financial well-being of their parents if they lack decent-paying jobs themselves.

Scott G Winerton, Deseret News

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China is just beginning to grapple with the reality of a new law that says adult children must visit their aging parents often and provide for their financial and spiritual needs.

In the month since the "Law of Protection of Rights and Interests of the Aged" went into effect, courts have already begun hearing the cases of parents suing their absent kids for lack of attentiveness and support.

The aspect of the policy that most resonates with me is the sheer divisiveness. I get the importance of family taking care of each other. But I've also been around enough different types of families to know that you can't mandate caring. You can't force kids to settle in nearby communities where it's an easy walk or drive to see the folks. Nor can you make them responsible for the financial well-being of their parents if they lack decent-paying jobs themselves.

Frankly, there are also reasons why some kids can't get far enough away from their parents. Those are all big obstacles for a hyper-prescriptive society to overcome — assuming, of course, that you even think it's appropriate for a government to poke its nose into the issue of interpersonal relationships in the first place.

I'd have been OK had such a law been enacted in America because I was a mama's girl and a daddy's girl and never wanted to be more than a few hours away from my parents, though there were many times I went months without physically getting home because of work and other demands. I talked to my parents frequently, though, and when they were older and moved nearer to my sister and me, I visited them nearly every weekend.

One of my brothers lived much farther away and his visits occurred considerably less often, a fact driven by sheer distance, not lack of caring. But we also had a particular reason for staying close to Mom and Dad and feeling responsible and loving: We had parents who were always there for us and who loved us and provided for us. The adoration flowed freely in both directions.

Try mandating that.

Not all kin relationships are like that. When my dad was young, his stepfather would sometimes pass him the butter dish in such a way that my dad's finger would poke into the butter. Then his stepfather would chortle, "What's wrong with you? Can't you see?"

It was a mean question. Dad was diagnosed with glaucoma at 6, around the time his real father died. He was totally blind at 13. Not long after my grandma remarried, my dad and his brother were sent away to school, primarily because her new husband didn't want to deal with another man's children. Mandating you visit someone who went to great lengths to send you away seems ludicrous, too.

In spite of being a singularly charitable man, my dad disliked his stepfather. Still, he visited his mom when he could, which was not very often because of finances and distance. He had not settled nearby.

I have friends who live far from the homes of their parents, some grappling to overcome distance as their folks age, others glad to have the buffer of several thousands of miles to prevent the chance of accidentally bumping into each other after tumultuous childhoods of neglect or abuse.

A friend has always been very attentive to her widowed mother, though she could not possibly meet the older woman's expectation of how often she should visit or how much assistance of various types she should provide. The woman's needs fill a bottomless pit.

The dynamics that determine later interactions between adults are years, even decades in the making. I'm not sure you can — or should — legislate that.

Deseret News staff writer Lois M. Collins may be reached by email at lois@desnews.com. Follow her on Twitter at loisco.

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