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Adulting 101: My wife and I have no siblings, so my worries as our parents' caregivers are compounded

SINGAPORE — When my wife and I first started dating, I was amused to find out that she, too, is an only child. 

Adulting 101: My wife and I have no siblings, so my worries as our parents' caregivers are compounded

Adulthood is an invigorating stage of life as young people join the workforce, take on more responsibilities and set their sights on the future. But its many facets — from managing finances and buying a home to achieving work-life balance — can be overwhelming.

In this series, TODAY’s journalists help young Singaporeans navigate this stage of their lives and learn something themselves in the process.

SINGAPORE — When my wife and I first started dating, I was amused to find out that she, too, is an only child. 

The typical ups and downs of not having siblings in the household while growing up was something familiar to us both.

However, that sense of amusement of meeting a life partner with a similar background soon began to fade. This was especially after we tied the knot and the realities of being part of each other’s families set in, making us become aware of something that drew our concern.

For the first two Hari Raya Aidilfitri as a married couple, my wife and I were away from our parents.

In 2019, we were overseas for work.

The following year, it was the circuit breaker or semi-lockdown in Singapore due to the Covid-19 outbreak that separated us, as we live separately from our parents and the prevailing social restrictions then did not allow for visitors.

So for those two years, our parents were without our company celebrating Aidilfitri — a festive occasion for Muslims that hinges on gathering with loved ones and renewing familial ties.

It really struck me hard then, that besides the two of us, our parents don’t have any other children to turn to, rely on or keep them company.

WHAT IF SOMETHING BAD HAPPENS

Sure, having a spouse who is also an only child would mean that we have some views and outlook in common, making it easier to talk to each other about our concerns.

But it also compounds our fears when we think about worst-case scenarios.

If, by some great misfortune, either of us gets struck down by a critical illness or major disability in the future, it would mean that the other partner would effectively have five members to care for — with no one else to share the load.

Even with sufficient medical coverage, for example, the prospect of being solely responsible for five family members is very daunting.

I’ve seen siblings in bigger families taking turns to accompany their parents for medical check-ups, depending on their respective work and leave schedules.

For my wife and me, the leeway to shift around schedules would be a little tighter.

At this point, I should say that our parents are still blessed with relatively good health. They are also financially self-sufficient and, apart from a very limited number of tasks, they are very much independent. 

It would be remiss of me not to admit that our parents have instead been the ones helping us with errands every now and then, especially when my wife and I get too busy with work (steals glances at editors).

ANTICIPATION ANXIETY AND MORE

While writing this piece, I chatted with about 10 adults of various ages and backgrounds who are also the only child in their families.

While most of them have parents in their 50s or 60s who are still active and mobile, these children share the same anxieties that my wife and I have.

Ms Maniesha Blakey, a counsellor at MindWhatMatters, said that this form of anxiety might be attributable to a fear of the unknown.

“It may be that you don't really know what to expect. And if that is the case, then finding out as much as you can about the different facets of caregiving when it comes to elderly parents may be quite helpful,” she said.

That anticipation of future possibilities does not just affect us mentally.

For some grown-ups who are the only child in their families, they told me that they have already or will soon be making choices based on how they will be their parents' sole caregiver in the future.

For myself, I enjoyed the couple of times I have covered overseas assignments previously at Berita Mediacorp. But when it came to charting the next phase of my career growth late last year, I took it for granted that a long stint away from Singapore was out of the question.

I spoke to an only child who delayed buying a property for himself and moving out because he “felt the need” to be at home more to care for his parents.

Some others made flexible working hours or arrangements their top consideration when looking for jobs. 

Most of the time, they make these decisions based on the unsaid “anticipated needs” of their parents, but without even sharing their thoughts with their parents.

To this, Ms Blakey suggested that the children pause and take a step back to look at all possibilities — to balance between one’s own aspirations and preparing for future responsibilities.

Perhaps they could go with a shorter overseas study or work stint, instead of none at all. Or they could choose to live near their parents or getting a place big enough for the parents to move in together with them, instead of not moving out of their parents’ home. 

“So consider your decision, as part of the whole (bigger picture) rather than just jumping into the ‘I have to do this, I can’t do this, because I'm going to be a caregiver’ notion.

“In a way you've got to be realistic. Take a step back,” she advised.

PLANS FOR BOTH SIDES

Some peers of mine said that they do not feel overly worried in terms of the financial aspects of caregiving. This is because their parents are gainfully employed and have substantial savings.

Others have parents whose flats are not on mortgage or who do not have housing loans to repay. This meant that the adult children have one less financial obligation to worry about and whatever income their parents earn can go fully to their retirement funds.

When I spoke to Mr Fakhrul Arifin Mohamed Hussein, a financial services manager, he said that although things may look good on the surface, it would be wise to take a deeper look at your parents’ financial health — especially in terms of insurance coverage. 

“Even though some parents do not have liabilities and have enough for their retirement, critical illness or disability could drain their retirement fund,” he said, adding that insurance premiums will only get more expensive with age.

Singaporeans are automatically covered by the Central Provident Fund’s ElderShield or Careshield Life, which are long-term-care insurance schemes. However, Mr Arifin suggested looking at supplements that offer higher payouts, which can then be used to fund caregiving needs.

One often overlooked aspect of future planning, he added, is the Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA), a legal document that allows a person to plan the management of his affairs in the event of a loss of mental capacity.

Mr Arifin emphasised that this is important not just for the parents, but for the adult children as well.

“(It is) extremely critical, more so for an only child. If your parents outlive you, who will manage their affairs and finances? Or what if the tables are turned and it’s you who become disabled or mentally incapacitated?”

YOU’RE NOT REALLY ALONE

Of course, concerns about caregiving are not unique to those who are an only child. TODAY has covered various aspects of caregiving in past articles, including Singaporeans’ reliance on domestic workers, rising healthcare costs and our fast-ageing population.

What adds on to our worries the most is that for us who are an only child, we will eventually have to walk the caregiving journey “alone” with our respective partners.

Ms Blakey said that it is important for caregivers to look after their emotional and mental well-being as well, since it will have a direct impact on the quality of care we can offer.

So for children who may lack the support system in the form of immediate family members, we should look for alternatives outside, be it in the form of a formal community group, a circle of friends or an online group.

“And even if you can't find one online, you might want to think about starting one yourself and you may be quite surprised at how many people out there would want to be a part of that as well,” Ms Blakey added.

So to my peers who have talked to me about this matter before I wrote this article, don’t be too surprised if I reach out to you soon.

ABOUT THE WRITER:

Taufik Zalizan is a senior journalist at TODAY, covering security, transport and economic issues. 

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