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Grandma Ellen

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Introducing a regular column by our wonderful Ellen Blaustein, Maryland, USA. Ellen spent 2006 with us writing global pen pal letters (see Lifestyle section) to her dear friend Joy in Berne, Switzerland. Please welcome her again as she becomes our resident senior voice and storyteller.

Grandma Ellen Ellen Baron is a wife, mother and grandmother who has had three distinctive careers:
1) as an editor at an educational laboratory;
2) as a businesswoman who ran a private-label group at Black & Decker, and then served as Director of Marketing for a consumer electronics start-up company; and
3) as an academic administrator who was director of a post-baccalaureate business program.

Her 'Just Jobs' (as opposed to "Careers") included piano teacher and French tutor (her undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis having been in French).

Now retired from both careers and jobs, Ellen serves on the Maryland State Attorney Grievance Commission, as well as the Boards of several non-profits. She has lived in England, Switzerland and Germany, as well as St. Louis, Boston, a suburb of Washington, D.C., and, now, Baltimore, MD.
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Grandma Ellen

By Ellen Blaustein

As the New Year dawns, senior citizens around the world are enjoying the hard-earned fruits of their labors.  But not in equal measure.  Older Chinese citizens are revered by their society.  Street slogans teach young people to respect the elderly and to treat each one as if he or she were their own parent.  Seniors enjoy all manner of activities designed to make their lives happy – dancing, singing, chess, for example – all sponsored by the government.  Free health care too, of course. 

Aging Chinese parents expect to be taken care of and supported by their children, and, in return, it is a given that they will help their children.  My friend, Jin, who lives here in America, has a three-year-old daughter being raised by her grandparents in China because in their wisdom (and Chinese elders are perceived to be very wise, indeed) Jin’s parents felt that the day-care facilities for small children here were inadequate.  No arguments to the contrary by Jin mattered.  Her parents are all-wise and a Chinese child does not ever disagree with a parent.  Father, and Mother, know best.  Jin’s aging mother and father live happy, fulfilling lives, secure in their respected place in society and in their children’s lives.

The governments in Germany and in most of the rest of Europe aren’t so concerned with the happiness of their elderly folks.  Neither are old people there accorded the reverence that seniors in China are.  Our friends, Hella and Herbert, married senior citizens and practicing physicians, say they are respected for their intellect and opinions, but once they retire, they will lose that cache and will be lumped with the rest of the aging population, most of whom have been put out to pasture and forced to retire at age 60.  After that, they are thought of as a drain on society.  Yes, Hella says, they have good health insurance, but they have paid dearly for that in the form of high taxes.   Otherwise, their general welfare is up to them.  No government-sponsored dancing, singing, or chess.

My cousin, Laura, who is married to a Peruvian and has lived in Peru for over 30 years, notes that extended families are the norm in the smaller countries of South America – Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, just as they are in China.  Government-funded facilities for the elderly are abysmal, and only those who are truly poverty stricken or those with no relatives reside in them.  “Everyone else takes care of their own”, Laura says.  Old people stay in their own homes with help as long as possible in order to maintain their independence, even if it is at the expense, literally, of their children.  When the money becomes scarce, the old ones move in with children or other relatives, who hire help.  Children are not overjoyed when their parents need their financial and physical help, but neither are the parents looked upon as burdens. The situation is considered normal and everyone knows that it is just another stage of life.  

Here in the land of the independent spirit, anything goes.  Recently, at a party, I met Lisa.  Lisa and her husband bought her parents’ home five years ago at below-market cost.  The reasonable price came with a pre-condition: her parents would live in the house with them.  They have since then.  Lisa and her husband are hard-working docs with two young kids; so if her 80-year-old parents’ health begins to spiral downward, they will bring trained nursing help into their home.

My friend Ann lives here in Baltimore.  Her dad lives in Hartford, CT.  He is 100 years old and lives by himself.  Recently, he went through a sick spell.  Ann flew up to Hartford for weeks at a time, watching over him while he was in the hospital and arranging for her dad’s stay in a rehabilitation center when he improved.  Now the rehabilitation center wants to discharge him (Medicare won’t pay anymore) and Ann doesn’t know whether to bring him here and install him in her home with help, or leave him in Hartford, where he would be closer to her brother.

I am a Midwest-born, “St. Louisan” who has lived in Baltimore for 27 years.  When my parents became ill in the 90’s, my brother and I hired help through a family-service agency.  The agency provided nursing aides, as well as a social worker to oversee them.  My parents paid.  I spoke to the social worker frequently and made trips to St. Louis every two or three months.  Then my Dad died.  I brought my mother, by then deep into Alzheimer’s disease, to a fine nursing home here in Baltimore.  Only it wasn’t – fine.  So after seven months, she returned to St. Louis and moved back into her old home with a live-in companion.  Each week-day for six years, until she died, she attended an adult day-care center.  Being there revived her spirits and occupied her mind.  There was no government help for any of this.

I’m wondering, Dear Reader, what kinds of elder care you think we should have?  Something like China’s? Europe’s? South America’s? A combination?  Let me hear your thoughts on the matter.  Email me at

Grandma Ellen

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