Bargaining by wanghonghx



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January 14, 2012

Bargaining for a Child’s Love

Princeton, N.J.

ECONOMIC malaise and political sloganeering have contributed to the increasingly loud
conversation about the coming crisis of old-age care: the depletion of the Social Security trust
fund, the ever rising cost of Medicare, the end of defined-benefit pensions, the stagnation of
401(k)’s. News accounts suggest that overstretched and insufficient public services are driving
adult children “back” toward caring for dependent parents.

Such accounts often draw on a deeply sentimental view of the past. Once upon a time, the story
line goes, family members cared for one another naturally within households, in an organic and
unplanned process. But this portrait is too rosy. If we confront what old-age support once looked
like — what actually happened when care was almost fully privatized, when the old depended on
their families, without the bureaucratic structures and the (under)paid caregivers we take for
granted — a different picture emerges.

For the past decade I have been researching cases of family conflict over old-age care in the
decades before Social Security. I have found extraordinary testimony about the intimate
management of family care: how the old negotiated with the young for what they called
retirement, and the exertions of caregiving at a time when support by relatives was the only
sustenance available for the old.

In that world, older people could not rely on habit or culture or nature if they wanted their
children to support them when they became frail. In an America strongly identified with
economic and physical mobility, parents had to offer inducements. Usually, the bait they used
was the promise of an inheritance: stay and take care of me and your mother, and someday you
will get the house and the farm or the store or the bank account.

But of course what was at stake was never just an economic bargain between rational actors.
Older people negotiated with the young to receive love, to be cared for with affection, not just
The bargains that were negotiated were often unstable and easily undone. Life expectancies were
considerably lower than they are now, but even so, old age could easily stretch for decades. Of
course, disease, injury, disability, dementia, insanity, incontinence — not to mention sudden
death — were commonplace, too. Wills would be left unwritten, deeds unconveyed, promises
unfulfilled, because of the onset of dementia or the meddling of siblings. Or property was
conveyed too early, and then the older person would be at the mercy of a child who no longer
“cared” — or who could not deal with the work of care.

Consider one story, drawn from a court case in New Jersey that ended in 1904. George H. Slack
had been a carpenter and a contractor in Trenton, living in a house with his wife, their daughter,
Ella Rees, and her husband and daughter.

According to witnesses, the father’s syphilis had eroded his capacity to conduct business. He was
not insane or incompetent, but he was increasingly deaf and uninterested in the world. According
to one son, his father had become “cranky and hard to get along with, and he would go into the
stable and flog the horses until the neighbors would interfere.” He was “drowsy and sleepy all
the time.” He was gluttonous and depressed and didn’t clean himself, the son remembered; the
family “had to force him to wash himself, he was so dirty.” The other son recalled that Ella had
difficulty “getting him to change his underwear.”

Sometime in 1899 or 1900, Ella and her family moved to a house nearby. One brother claimed
that their father had ordered her out of the home, but Ella insisted she had left because she could
not take it any longer. “My mother was insane,” she later recalled, “and I could not get along
with her.”

What “insane” meant to her is impossible to reconstruct in modern diagnostic terms. But in
November 1901, Ella’s mother wandered away from the house. She began to walk north along
the Delaware River. Eventually, she was found in the river’s cold water by a trapper. She was
taken to a farmhouse where her clothes were dried and she was given something warm to drink.
And then she was taken back to Trenton.

Ella returned briefly to care for her mother, but on Christmas Eve, Ella’s own daughter became
ill, and, as she put it, “I was called home” — that is, to her own house. When she left, her father
told her that “you will move back home with me again.” But she replied, “No, Father, the way
Ma’s mind is no one can get along with her here, she knows she’s boss, and no one can get along
with her, and I cannot come back here.”

At that point, Mr. Slack promised his daughter, “If you will come home, I will deed my property
to you.” He said his Civil War pension would be enough to live on. But Ella was unswayed. “I
said I wanted them to live and enjoy all they had,” she said.

Though she would not move back in with her parents, even with a promise of property, she did
come back two or three times a week to clean house and provide care. But then, in spite of her
resolve, her mother “got so bad,” Ella said later, that she had to move back. Finally, in the early
summer of 1902, her mother was placed in the Trenton Asylum for the Insane, where she died on
Aug. 10, 1902.
On the day of his wife’s death, Mr. Slack left his home and moved in with Ella. Two days later,
he collapsed in her bathroom. He rallied and called for doctors and for a lawyer to draft deeds
that transferred his property to Ella. That done, in two days he was dead.

At her father’s funeral, Ella’s brothers asked if she knew about the property their father had left.
She said that Pa had told her not to say anything until after the funeral. Her brothers pressed her,
and she told them that the property had been left to her. One brother asked her if she “thought
that was right.” She replied that it was — because, as she later recounted, “I had stayed home
and sacrificed all my life for them.” The brother told her “then and there” that he would fight her
in court, she later testified.

SO much has changed since the early 20th century in the physical, economic and familial lives of
older people, as well as in the work lives of their adult children, particularly women. We live in
vastly different ways than Mr. Slack’s family did. Our moral and relational expectations have
changed as well. Everyone who studies old-age care concludes that family members still do a
great deal. Yet the care they offer is typically enmeshed with and dependent on bureaucracies
and on the labor of others: home health care attendants, hospital orderlies and hospice aides,
many of whom are recent immigrants. To provide care as a middle- or upper-class family
member is ordinarily to manage or help manage the care for a disabled or aging parent, not the
work of cleaning bedsheets, helping a parent into a bathtub, changing a diaper.

Comparisons between the present and even the not-so-distant past are always awkward and
incomplete. Still, stories like that of Ella Rees challenge an easy celebration of family care and
household intimacy in an imagined past. When 19th- and early 20th-century family members
negotiated with one another around needs and care, the outcomes were only occasionally happy.
Their insular world was a very dark world for old-age care, because there was so little support
beyond blood relations.

Dependency and disability still confront us as facts of life. There is little happiness in the
inevitable but unpredictable decline that awaits all of us. And many younger people still
experience themselves as trapped by a sense of duty to care for older relatives. Yet few of us are
trapped as Ella Rees was. Our traps are different, often of our own making, and incorporate the
work of others.

We may not love the bureaucracies and the institutions that shape our lives today. But would
many of us really want to live in a world without them?

Hendrik Hartog is a professor of history at Princeton and the author of “Someday All This Will
Be Yours: A History of Inheritance and Old Age.”

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