Uneven aging: Duty

There are few qualities as loaded as duty, the concept of moral or legal obligation. Duty is associated with role: one's duty as a partner, citizen, parent, or employee. The concept is embedded within culture, faith, family norms, and our internal moral compass.

In modern wedding or civil union ceremonies, the rights and obligations of both parties are stated explicitly. In the Québec secular ceremony, the officiant says, "The spouses have the same rights and obligations in marriage. They owe each other respect, fidelity, succor and assistance." 

If you made similar vows, duty comes with the territory, but many make such a promise without it, and friends' devotion can put that of some marriages to shame.  In uneven aging, one partner's "succor and assistance" becomes more active and overt than the other's.

Duty is a rather retro value, given the present-day emphasis on "me time" and individual fulfillment. Duty lives firmly in the realm of "them time": the Sunday phone call to Dad, the extra hours spent with a friend who is blue, attendance at a neighbour's party when you'd rather be home watching "Star Trek".

Duty thrives when given freely, without demand. Should it becomes an onerous, bleak requirement, resentment enters. When a person says, "I don't want to be a burden", this is exactly what she dreads.

In uneven aging, duty, which may have lain tucked away like a wedding-gift chafing dish, comes to the fore. The needs of one person alter the more-vital person's life. Special diets, a careful eye on medication schedules, or regular doctor's visits disrupt routine. One person may now do all the driving or suddenly find she is in charge of financial details.

The afflicted mate needs equanimity to receive the care, because it makes limits explicit. "Let me get that door", my neighbour Eliane says to her infirm husband, and for an instant he looks vexed, but accedes. He is grateful, but so wishes he could do it himself.

When friends praise her constancy, she replies, "He'd do it for me". Eliane knows that duty needs renewal, so takes an annual three-week holiday with longtime women friends.

Lola's partner had a severe depression and was unable to leave the house for two years. Friends praised her devotion, but because they were told Karl was getting better (even when that was only a hope) they left her on her own. She finally realized that her chipper attitude masked burnout, and began to say, "Would you like to do something for Karl?" Lola requested "duties", helpful tasks like getting the snow tires on the car by the deadline.

In years past, duty may have arisen only in terms of parents, children or friends. But duty can enter the couple's life in a matter of hours. Last year, one of my dear Susanfriends suffered a cerebral accident that required emergency surgery and intensive rehabilitation.

Her husband, the kind of guy whose shirt buttons might not be done up in line, instantly stepped in as caregiver, advocate and blogger. On a Caring Bridge site, he posted subtle, profound love poems, wry observations about dry shampoo (which he hadn't known existed) and every morsel of progress.

The poetry surprised me, but his devotion did not, for, as he said, "This is the moment we have been preparing for all our lives." They had long given themselves to service to others, as part of their  spiritual path. Service as a moral imperative is central to their lives, and now their practice had come home.

From Susan, I have learned that duty need not be one-sided. She connects with friends, offering counsel and stories, even while she manages her energy. She recently sent photos of the mint-condition Hermès scarf she found for $5 at a yard sale, then followed up a few weeks later with a second scooped from a thrift store for $1! So maybe there is a karmic reciprocity operating here.

Susan participated in plans for her mother's birthday party, and is about to return to teaching meditation, though she's a little nervous. When the cared-for can in turn care for others, duty moves ever closer to love, the pivotal point of our short existence.


This is such a thoughtful - and timely post, especially for those of a certain age. In the past 3 years I've had two surgeries that required post-op assistance - and my friends were there for me - just as I have been there for them when needed, and I am very, very grateful.
At the same time I think it is wise to know one's limitations. I may have to go the roommate route within a few years because of financial considerations and I know that one friend is thinking of doing the same and has hinted that we should search for a place together. I hesitate because of her never ending real and imagined health issues. I help where I can now and lend an ear when she just needs a moan - but I also know that at times I need to limit contact as her one and only topic of conversation becomes her health. I could not listen to this day in and day out as I am of the opposite persuasion - stoic until real need means that I must seek assistance. Living with her day in and day out would destroy our friendship as I could not be a 24 hour a day caregiver.
A few of my friends are divorced or widowed and each of them says that they would never remarry - either because they feel that men are looking for a nurse - or because they've done it once (and did so freely and lovingly) but knows that she just could not go through it again.
Since I am on my own with no family near by I am free to assist friends where and when I can - and do - and I have also now started to give back via volunteering - and yes I do consider this a duty but not one that I resent. It is something that I find gives back to me in so many unexpected ways.
angiemanzi said…
I LOVE THIS POST. Thank you so much for putting into words what so many of us are experiencing.
You do such an excellent job of finding issues and emotions that are touching all of us who have luckily reached a certain age, and expressing them in a way that delights. My husband and I have no children, but both of our mothers are still living, and both require quite a bit of our attention, in very different ways. Couple that with my not improving chronic pain and fatigue condition, and my husband's workaholic ways, and there's a lot of care flowing in a lot of directions!

Thank you, always, for the care you put in these posts. It is truly appreciated.
Kate Budacki said…
Beautifully expressed and so timely for so many of us. This is a tricky time with challenges that come from places we least expect. Easier to ignore than acknowledge and discuss. Thanks for bringing it up in such a sensitive but still head-on fashion. Thanks for being you, Duchesse!
Madame Là-bas said…
You have struck a chord with your uneven ageing posts. Some friends and family have different health concerns. Some of us see "duty" differently. My mother requires a lot of connection and I as the eldest seem to be the most "dutiful". My bipolar husband requires an "anchor" even though he resents it. It is important to realize that we are human and that it is hubris that pushes us to stretch ourselves too thinly.
Duchesse said…
Mme Là-bas: In a family, I have seen the dynamic where one child (often a daughter) assumes the major share of care, and is celebrated for her devotion. But as you said, sometimes she is overburdened. It takes a big spirit for siblings or friends to see that and lend a hand. Some parents reinforce the dynamic unwittingly, because they have a favourite, at least as far as care goes.

I have always admired those who extend care and companionship to those who are not even family members, through volunteer work or just informally- and I think that sense of social connection is eroding. I am grateful some still do that, and as my generation ages, I'm going to bet we will need them.

Duchesse said…
Margie: If you plan to share housing, living with a friend may be "the devil you know". I figure you have already know that, but your comment really made me think. Shared accommodation makes so much sense as housing is the biggest cost for seniors (besides transportation, but that changes if you do not need a car.)

And sometimes you know you just could not live with a particular person, no matter how financially advantageous. Having a roommate after years of being on one's own is bound to be an adjustment no matter who it is.
Duchesse said…
Margie: Oops: I wanted to write, "I figure you already know that."
LauraH said…
As always you write so thoughtfully and warmly about these situations. When I looked after my late husband I didn't think of it as duty but that's how I thought of the time I spent travelling to see my parents during the last years of their lives. During that time I saw my sister take on much more than she needed to out of a sense of duty, although I believe that for some reason guilt or avoidance of guilt played a big part in her actions. Being the dutiful daughter eventually led to a lot of resentment and anger, at my parents, at herself and at me. Duty can be a precarious idea.
Melissa said…
This is such a difficult time in life and I am watching it first hand. We have just this week moved by ageing In-Laws down to be near us and have spent the whole week helping with the move, unpacking, organizing services, shopping, cooking, washing and cleaning up for them.
My Father-in-law is almost completely dependent. He has very little muscle strength and can barely move, needing help to get out of bed, dressed, toileted and showered, in and out of the chair. He can't give himself his insulin, he is basically blind, has no interest in doing anything but sleeping and eating, rarely talks and only one or two words, or nods, but he can feed himself. My Mother-in-law has been doing all of the caring for him and is totally worn out both emotionally and physically. She is frail, has osteoporosis, can barely walk and has little strength but she battles on because he doesn't want to be in Care. I am so worried that he will topple over as she tries to dress him and crush her. We have managed to get some respite care booked, but he is very unwilling to go, and she feels it her duty to look after him. The look of hope and relief in her eyes when we told her that she would have two weeks without being responsible for his care was heart-breaking. She will be fine in her independent living unit with some help from us and services, but he should be in nursing care. I adore my Mother-in-law and am very happy to be helping her, but with her doing so much caring for him I seem to spend most of my days caring for them both with the cooking, washing up, cleaning up, clothes washing, shopping, taking them to medical appointments. How do you draw the line so that you can adequately care for them and support them without it totally consuming your life! I have a medical practice to run and that is falling behind, as is my own household, and all meals have been taken with them since the move!
Duchesse said…
LauraH: The relationship between duty and guilt is fraught; duty is a moral or ethical obligation. If guilt is the primary driver of care, the intention changes. But guilt can be put to use, because it is a smoke alarm that we are violating (or about to) our values. Guilt "laid on" by others is a different matter: that person thinks you have violated •her• values.

Duty is a concept attached to "virtue ethics", which guide Western religions and secular humanism, and is often interpreted as "doing what you would rather not, because have to."

When we cannot locate within us duty's roots of compassion, or pollute our giving with guilt or shame, duty curdles into resentment and anger. Again, anger is a powerful signal that the one engaged in duty's needs are not being met.
What a beautiful meditation on such a poignant, universal topic.

It serves for me as a reminder, a harbinger, an inspiration--and reminds me that we are always in "community", if we choose to recognize it.

Merci, Duchesse :)
Duchesse said…
Melissa Hubbard: This is "heavy duty Duty". The answer seems obvious: book more help, through agencies, or independent caregivers, and the best are referrals from families who have engaged them. It is a patchwork of services: meal delivery, home attendants or cleaning, ride services. If you have friends who can act as runners/shoppers, ask them. (A friend once said to me, "Make them your mac and cheese, but in individual portions".) Even though your FIL would prefer every ounce of care be provided by his wife, he literally cannot see her exhaustion, and you are correct in sensing she needs relief.

I hope your MIL can accept help, even when "strangers" enter the home to do some grooming or housekeeping. Those helpers save her energy so that she can provide the emotional support to him, a function no one else can do like she can.

It is not so much "drawing the line" as "expanding the circle". I am well aware that services come at a cost, but if you have the means, it's time to spend- a battle I had with my Depression-era mother.

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