by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
January 14, 2010
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Cross-cultural experiences come when you least expect them.
Going on under our noses - and mostly being ignored by anthropologists - is a great cross-cultural mash-up between Haitians, Jamaicans, African-Americans and Africans and the elderly white Americans they care for - many of them Jewish - in places like south Florida.
Although many of these elderly people have never had a relationship with someone from a different culture in their life, they sometimes find themselves living with one when they're at their weakest and most vulnerable.
Fear, prejudice, trust, communication, different cooking styles - there is a lot of adjusting and accommodating that needs to go on for these relationships to work. This might come as a surprise to people who are at the end of their lives and haven't stepped out of their comfort zone in decades.
In recent months, my mother, who is 92 and lives alone in Florida, has needed assistance with bathing, dressing, managing her medication, shopping, cooking, and walking. She hates being dependent, so this has been difficult for her. She also has no experience in management, so she's learning on the fly how to deal effectively - or not - with a stranger in her home who is being paid to help her.
Sometimes real affection blossoms in these relationships. One of my mother's friends has a live-in African caretaker who has become a close friend. She dresses the Hadassah ladies in her colorful native clothing and teaches them her tribal dances.
More than one caretaker has told me about a special patient who died in their arms, and how much they cried afterward. But I've also heard about aides who steal, threaten and abuse.
Sometimes the experience can be shocking. Mom has had aides who use spices so foreign that she can't eat their food. She's had religious fanatics who proselytize on the job. She's had aides whose families fall apart while they're taking care of her, so they spend all their time on the phone. Or else they disappear. She even had one who appeared to be bipolar; it was Mom's first experience with having to fire someone, and she agonized over it.
She also had one aide who saved her life.
Now she has Cindy, whose favorite expression is "for real." She's an articulate Jamaican woman, 55 but looking much, much younger (and sexier). She's even-tempered. She's smart. She's kind. She's proud of her competence. I trust her with my mother.
I asked Cindy if she ever thought of her job as a cross-cultural experience. "For real," she said.
"Jamaicans don't hate white people," she said. "For real. In Jamaica, it's a mix of people, white and black. The Indians are a little standoffish, and there's some racism there - for a long time, black-skinned people couldn't work in banks. But now it's a mix, so Jamaicans are more comfortable up here."
It's not an easy job. In one place, Cindy was taking care of a wealthy elderly woman with Alzheimer's - and also her 65-year-old autistic son. Both were incontinent.
The woman was abusive. On a regular basis, she accused Cindy of stealing from her. She often called 911 on her; in fact, she called so many times that Cindy knew the cops by name.
She sometimes called Cindy, who is dark-skinned, a "monkey." Cindy just turned around and called her a "white monkey."
The son hurled terrible insults at Cindy, too. After these outbursts, the pair usually apologized. So Cindy persevered, because for her the pay is excellent. She can send money home to Jamaica every week, and she has built herself a nice house there.
Also, in her public school, she was taught the prose poem "Desiderata" by Max Ehrmann. She can still recite the spirit of it by heart. It begins, "As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story... With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy."
So Cindy accepted her employer's paranoia as just one of the first signs of dementia - like asking the same question over and over again, or forgetting what you're saying in the middle of a sentence.
She only quit when a social worker took her aside one day and told her that two people should be doing her job. And even then, she waited until replacements were found. Then she took a few months off and went to Jamaica to recover.
Cindy and my mother get along well, but they have their problems. Watching my mother cope and grow has been surprising. It's also been interesting to see where Mom won't budge. "Cindy says I'm cheap," my mother told me the other day. "Well, I don't care what she says. I am cheap."
I often think some anthropologist should be studying these cross-cultural exchanges, which are going on in private homes all over the country. Some interesting stories are being lost. Some interesting lessons are going unlearned.
"Courtesy, modesty, good manners, conformity to definite ethical standards are universal, but what constitutes courtesy, modesty, very good manners, and definite ethical standards is not universal," wrote the groundbreaking anthropologist Franz Boas. "It is instructive to know that standards differ in the most unexpected ways."
Joyce Marcel (joycemarcel.com) is a journalist. Reach her at email@example.com.