Confronting Death When Our Parents Age

image

On April 16th, during the weekend of the Khmer New Year celebration and Day of Remembrance which marked the 41 year anniversary of the Khmer Rouge genocide that killed over 2 million Cambodians, I hosted a small, intimate roundtable discussion on initiating “end-of-life” care conversations with our loved ones. In the Khmer-American community, the generation of refugees who arrived in America after the genocide are aging and becoming senior citizens. As they transition into elderly status, how do their adult children take on the reality that their parents would soon decline, and eventually pass on? Furthermore, how do elder loved ones in the Southeast Asian communities deal with the issues relating to aging?

I was inspired to take on this subject as both of my parents just entered into their 60s. Both of my parents were survivors of war (my mom’s family escaping from the Vietnam War while my dad survived the Khmer Rouge genocide), and experienced many of the PTSD issues that are connected to those traumas. Four years ago, my mother suffered a stroke. Before I turned 30, I would soon share the responsibilities with my brothers on being her caregiver. Meanwhile, my father has struggled mightily with his own PTSD issues after his escape from Cambodia, and his own mental health struggles would become a major hindrance during my mom’s recovery.

image

Through my experiences being my mom’s caregiver, I was confronted with my own challenges in being able to give her the emotional support she needed. It required confronting my own complicated relationship with my parents. From my teenage to early adulthood years, I rebelled against my parents’ ideals of being an “obedient son”, a family prize that would achieve success in the medical and science field ( a place that my dad once said that “most Asian people” belong to), and bypassing my family culture that I found too oppressing and limiting altogether. I found it challenging for myself to reinvent my relationship with my mom. The years of limiting my emotional accessibility to her has been a barrier in giving myself the opportunity to hold the conversations I am wishing to have.

The reality that for my mom and for our loved ones, they are on borrowed time. When we think of buying eggs or a carton of milk, we look at the expiration date in the back, and think of what meals we can make out of in a specific time. With our loved ones, we don’t have the luxury of knowing when they’ll pass on, and oftentimes, we may not be so fortunate to spend the kind of quality time with them before they expire.

With the current group of US survivors from the Khmer Rouge era aging, there is a growing need to have a discussion on what their needs are, and how they can discuss them with their loved ones. The reality of facing pending mortality is an emotional trigger in the senior community. For the Khmer Rouge survivors, it also triggers memories of facing near death when they were fleeing / surviving from their homeland. As many of their children are now in their adulthood and starting their own families, elderly parents find it challenging to express what their needs are, and how to communicate it to their adult children.

During our roundtable discussion, I first did an ice-breaker where I asked everyone to think about a special loved one in their life, and asked another ice-breaker about a time when they made a decision that improved the quality of their life. This would lead into the main discussion of how empowering it is to be able to make your own life decisions and how you can involve your loved ones in the process. We would share stories on our challenges of initiating “end of life” care discussions with our parents and siblings. Their parents often become reluctant to talk about death with their children. Instead, they would casually joke around, and say “well, you better take care of us when we get old, okay?” One of the takeaways from our story-sharing was that we were conditioned to not become “overly emotional” or sensitive in front of our family as it is a sign of weakness. In typical of most Asian communities, it can be harder to express those vulnerabilities. This hinders our ability to verbalize our own needs, and how we want to be taken care of before we pass.

From my own experiences, I remembered my dad and male members of my family ridiculing me if I started crying, or expressing my feelings to them. By attempting to eliminate that part of my emotion, it created a lifelong struggle with being able to personally connect with my family. I rarely allowed my family access to my personal feelings; I had difficulties telling my family when I was getting bullied in school, or that I ended my friendship with an old high school friend, etc. As my mother’s caregiver, I found it difficult to have that relationship where it required me to be open and vulnerable to her. By avoiding it with my mom, I am often left feeling guilty that I have continued to neglect the many days that I could have had to improve my relationship with her.

In our group, we are left uncertain on how to express our love to our parents, and how we can best support them emotionally as they deal with the hardships of aging. We also see the value of how important our relationship with our siblings are, and how they can play a role in the handling of our parents’ care, and after their passing. We shouldn’t have to shame ourselves of our feelings when it includes fear, anxiety, depression, and anger.

By asking what our parents want and involving the family members, there is a fine line between controlling someone and guiding them to make the right decisions. We also have to be aware of what the end-of-life situation could look like. Do my parents want to stay on a feeding tube or on life support? What is the impact of someone that has a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order? Who are my parents willing to designate as their Power Of Attorney in their family to make health care decisions on their behalf if they are no longer able to? What ways can we educate ourselves and our family about these options? How can we empower our parents to make these decisions on their own? How can we start thinking about the “quality” of care that impacts them? There are also situations when our parents are not willing to have that discussion, or are no longer wanting to make decisions on their needs and final wishes.

With the generational differences heavily prevalent in regards to education, culture, language, intergenerational trauma, and economics between our parents and us, as adult children, do we have enough of a starting point where we can overcome our discomfort in talking about what life would look like without our parents present? Do we have what it takes where we can strengthen our trust and put aside our past insecurities with our parents and siblings? As adult children, we are in the process of establishing our own future, and at the same time, we must also consider how we can support our parents’ future. This can only happen by asking.

Disenfranchised Souls

wp-1459954916491.jpg

“Have you ever heard of Dunning?”, I posed this question to a few of my friends in their fifties and above. All of them answered with a resounding “Yes!”. Dunning, to them, represented as sort of a mythological folklore that their parents told to them as kids.

“If you were bad,” they warned, “you get sent to Dunning.” It became associated with those that are permanently labeled as “criminally insane” or “mentally unfit” or “too poor and sick” for society.  That ominous threat from parents was a reality for many folks who once inhabited the Dunning area, located on the Chicago Portage Park neighborhood in the Northwest Side. It served as the site of one of the most prominent mental asylums in Illinois (Chicago Read Mental Health Center currently exists), and strategically located away from the heavily populace of downtown Chicago. Through the years, that area has undergone a transformation with major housing and retail development as the stories about Dunning have largely gone untold and forgotten by many. It wasn’t until a recent story a few years back on Chicago’s WBEZ site that ignited renewed interest about Dunning’s dark past, and the current national dialogue concerning mental health. It would also reveal that 25 years ago, a large number of bodies in unmarked graves were discovered in the midst of developing land for housing, retail, and Wilbur Wright College.

Dunning was originally built as a farmhouse for the poor who were unable to obtain a job in the city. As Chicago’s population grew during the massive migration wave towards the turn of the 20th century, the city faced overcrowding, fewer job opportunities, and heavy poverty. The farmhouse would take in many more poor folks, and eventually bring in those with mild to severe mental health issues. This would eventually lead to the formation of the Chicago State Hospital which covered a vast 300+ acres.

wp-1459955160993.jpg

Mental health treatment in those times were often neglected and barbaric as dangerous medical experimental procedures were often performed on patients. The facilities were overcrowded, the living conditions were horrid and unsanitary, and the lack of attention and care from the medical staff made it impossible for residents to get the treatment they badly needed. Like many mental asylums, Dunning was a permanent prison for these residents with almost no hope of being released. Mental hospitals were not seen as treatment, but as a place to ensure that those who were seen as misfits or outcasts from society would be kept away from them permanently. These patients would soon be discarded and forgotten, and live out the rest of their lives in isolation and confinement. 20160402_131718.jpg

Many of the Dunning patients had little to no family support. When they had passed on. there was no financial assistance for a proper burial. Instead, they were buried with other corpses in unmarked graves with no public knowledge that there was even a graveyard on the facility grounds. It is told that there could be an estimated 38,000 human bodies buried there which included unidentified / unclaimed victims of the Chicago Fire of 1871. With incomplete and vague record-keeping of patients who lived and died in these grounds, the full narratives of these lives will remain an eternal mystery. Recently, there’s been renewed interest in improving the awareness and honoring those buried in Dunning such as this Facebook page.

20160402_131631.jpg

VISITING DUNNING

On April Fool’s weekend, I decided to pay a visit to the Dunning site. After reading the article on WBEZ (posted earlier on this page), I became drawn to learning more of the place that housed so much suffering, and the patients that were rejected by society when they were living, and in death. I thought about our nationwide struggles in understanding mental health issues, and most certainly, in Illinois where it has ranked last in mental health funding. I still wonder about the well-being of people that I had once been connected to that have struggled with mental issues. Perhaps, visiting the memorial would give me a more intimate reflection towards the lives that were left abandoned into eternity.

The memorial park, located on Belle Plaine Avenue by Wilbur Wright College, is surrounded by middle-class suburbia. There were no street markers leading up to the memorial. In the background is a view of the bleak industrial buildings. This small land, about half the size of a little league baseball field, stands vacant and devoid of human interaction. Slightly overgrown grass, less than half a dozen damaged gravestones, a few round concrete grounds (that resembles a satanic circle) with memorial plaques commemorating those buried in these grounds, a park bench, a tiny narrow gravel path around the park, a tall naked tree, and a garbage can that stood by the entrance are all that is present at Dunning Memorial.

Five minutes into my visit, the calming winds soon turned blusterous. Snow flakes furiously pelted across my face as the winds resisted my advances to move forward. It’s as if these souls were telling me to leave them alone. I acquiesced , and left the park in the midsts of an unusual April winter storm. As I drove, there was a street sign called “Bittersweet Place,” a symbolic irony that for years, Dunning was a place for those considered to be misfits and outcasts of society, and now, it’s a bustling middle-class neighborhood with a senior residence building and community college in its presence. Though the park lacks the proper honor and dignity for those lives, there is something to be said that those souls lying in those grounds are now sharing their space with their living neighbors. I can only imagine that they are finally back in a community that they have long been rejected from, and perhaps, there is some kind of solace that comes with that.

20160402_132526.jpg

All Rights Reserved by Randy Kim

Dad, Stop Running

 

I need you to stop running. I am out of breath.

Don’t fear, for I am here

Because you are who I have left.

I used to wake up whenever I heard you scream

Only to realize you are imprisoned in this eternally, haunting dream.

You told me stories of how you walked past the remains of flesh and bones

As you heard the distant echoes of ghostly moans.

Phnom Penh, the home you once knew

Now became a sight of bloody carnage taking place in its view.

The small grain of rice you held in your hand,

Along with the guiding stars at night helped you get to Thailand.

You wanted to end the Khmer nightmare, and tried to make the American Dream,

So you created my brothers and me

But the images of death, fear, and guilt are experiences that you still can’t unsee.

You tried to see your father who lived in Vietnam. For when it was time to reunite,

Your father died just before you were to take that flight.

It could have been a reunion of 20 years…

Instead, for the first time at the age of 9, I saw your only tears.

During the day, in our old home, when I sat in my bed,

I hear your random yells in the kitchen, saying how much you want all those American, Vietnamese, Khmer soldiers dead.

At your best, you were a loving, caring dad

But deep inside, your lifelong traumas that have confined you

Have now driven you mad.

As I remain silent from you,

I never stopped wishing that your liberation from darkness will one day come true.

You don’t ever need to run

Because standing right next to you is your son.

 

 

All Rights Reserved by Randy Kim 2015

Liquid Healing Space of Chicago

I have taken a series of photos along the scenic Chicago lakefront over the past 2.5 years when I first moved into Rogers Park. Going back to my globe trotting times from several years ago, I have found peaceful refuge being in the near presence of water. It is a form of therapy for me. Drinking, bathing, feeling, and breathing the vapors of h20 is what settles me in times of angst and anxiety. As I walk through the lakefront stretching from as far as Evanston to Montrose, I have made it my own sanctuary, my escape, and as a place to inhale the freshness and exhale the negative toxins that tend to plague me. Everyday, I am thankful that I can live in a place where I can experience such beauty, calmness, and serenity.

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

20130623_091740

20130627_202520

20130818_200922

image

image

2013-05-19 09.13.40

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

All Photos Taken By Randy Kim

All Rights Reserved © Randy Kim 2015