Day of abandonment: Kids escape parents on holidays by dumping them at the hospital
Israeli hospital staffs have been witnessing a growing phenomenon in recent years: Grownup children trying to get rid of their aging parents before long holidays by unnecessarily hospitalizing them or refusing to take them home when they recover.
The elderly man was hooked up to oxygen and received an antibiotics infusion and other medications, and within several days his condition improved: The infection rates were reduced, his body temperature went back to normal, he began walking around the ward on his own, and he even went down to the hospital cafeteria. All signs showed that D. had recovered.
"The medical file said the patient was a widower, who lived alone near one of his four children, says the hospital ward manager. "He is active, independent and volunteers in the crossing guard."
The man told the nurses that he was invited every weekend to the Shabbat dinner at the home of his son who lives nearby, and sometimes to the homes of his other children.
"On the surface, it seemed like a normative and dedicated family, which takes an interest in the elderly father and cares for him. During the hospitalization, he received regular visits from his children, who constantly expressed their interest in his situation."
'If his condition worsens, it will destroy our holiday'
But then things changed. "When I told the son that his father had recovered and that he should therefore be discharged to his home as soon as possible, because he might get infected by hospital bacteria, the son didn't respond," the ward manager reports. "He failed to respond he next day either, and it was only when I called him for a conversation in my room that the penny dropped. 'Look, Professor,' he said to me. 'The holiday is almost here and I'm afraid.'
"I didn’t understand what he was afraid of, and then he explained: 'What if his condition worsens during the holiday? It will destroy our evening. No to mention the fact that we have invited the parents of our new daughter-in-law for the first time, so how will we be able to care for him too?'
"I must admit that I struggled not to tell him how I feel about his despicable behavior and simply throw him out of the room with a discharge letter for his father. With the little pleasantness I managed to insert into my voice that moment, I explained to him that an internal ward is not a holiday arrangement or a guesthouse for an elderly parent who is not wanted among his family. On the contrary, it’s a dangerous place, especially for elderly people who are weaker, due to the increased exposure to bacteria. But he didn't appear to be convinced.
"What has happened since then is that the children have completely disconnected from their father. They talk to him on the phone occasionally, but they have stopped paying him visits for fear that we will force them to take him out of the ward and they don’t answer his calls," says the ward manager, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of the family's response.
'The holiday syndrome'
D. is one of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of independent elderly people who run their lives on their own and are the victims of an embarrassing phenomenon which medical staffs refer to as "the holiday syndrome."
Blatantly put, we are talking about people's way of getting rid of their elderly parents ahead of holidays by hospitalizing them or refusing to discharge them.
"There is not a single emergency room or hospitalization ward manager, especially in internal wards, who is unfamiliar with this phenomenon," says Prof. Pinchas Halpern, director of the Emergency Medicine Division at the Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv.
"On the surface, we are talking about families which are mostly normative, and some even have fine financial abilities. They are simply looking for the double bingo - a way to get rid of the parent and clear their conscience, knowing that the hospital will take care of all his needs."
"Getting rid of parents during holidays" has been a well-known phenomenon in some European countries for years, but in the past few years it has reached Israel too.
"We are talking about a widowed and functional parent, whose children show an interest in and visit and host regularly, even on weekends," explains Dr. Yaffa Lerman, director of the Geriatrics Division at the Sourasky Medical Center. "On holidays, particularly the long ones - Rosh Hashana, which has three intensive days of hosting or visiting, and Passover - they are just fed up.
"As outrageous as it may sound on the one hand, and possibly natural and understandable on the other hand, they just don’t want their parent - who perhaps doesn’t hear so well anymore, who may be a bit annoying, who often needs a sugar-free or low-sodium diet - to be with them and their guests around the holiday table."
There is no clear information on the number of elderly people deserted in hospitals across Israel on Rosh Hashana, but this is undoubtedly a growing phenomenon.
"On the holiday eve, the ER fills up with devoted sons accompanying one of their parents with suspicious general complaints: 'My father feels weak' or 'my mother had a fever in the morning' or 'there is suddenly a mental decline,'" says Prof. Halpern. "Although it sounds familiar and suspicious, it is our duty to take the complaints seriously, and the elderly patient undergoes an initial serious of tests.
Upon receiving the results, which indicate no deterioration in the elderly parent's diseases and no reason for his or her hospitalization, the children launch a battle.
"I have encountered different reactions, the most blatant one being: 'I am standing here in front of you and informing you that I'm not going to take him. What are you going to do to me?' The trouble is that I can’t do anything. My hands are tied. He disappears and leaves me with a humiliated elderly person. With the lack of a satisfactory institutionalized solution, I am forced - in the most unnecessary manner - to hospitalize him in the internal ward," Prof. Halpern admits.
And there are those who are not ashamed to admit the truth. "I ask them, 'But why did you bring him now, on the eve of the holiday? He is in excellent condition.' More than once, the answer has been, 'I just can't cope with him' or 'to tell you the truth, we are going abroad.'"
'It happens in all classes'
So who are these children, who are already grownup and usually have their own families? "It’s impossible to sketch one 'formulary' and binding profile of a deserting family," says Dr. Aviva Eisenberg, a clinical and medical psychologist. "We are talking about different people from different classes."
"From my experience, the parent deserters - and I have no softer terminology - belong to the entire social class spectrum. It happens among Ashkenazim, Sephardim, hired workers and wealthy people," Prof. Halpern stresses.
In some cases, according to the internal wards' staff, the abandoning children are the son or daughter who are usually stuck with the burden of taking care of their parents while their siblings regularly evade the task, and they are just tired. There are also children who have upgraded their social-economic status and have invited members of their new status to their holiday table, and they feel their elderly parent might embarrass them.
And is there a mechanism which allows them not only to be at peace with abandoning their parent during the holiday, but also to justify the act? "Don't forget that although Israeli society is characterized by family, over the years we have begun imitating the Western culture, which is keeping a growing number of us away from the family commitment," explains Dr. Eisenberg.
The forming society in Israel, she says, stresses the "I deserve" notion at the expense of "what should be done."
Since leaving the parent alone in his home during the holiday will make them feel guilty and lead to neighborhood gossip, these children have found the golden solution.
"Deserting the parents at a hospital, under the guise of hospitalization, is considered legitimate, both towards themselves and definitely towards society," Dr. Eisenberg adds. "It clears their conscience very well and they drive away any thoughts of the horrible act they have committed.
"And in order to ease their conscience even more, these children will convince themselves that their parent will only benefit from the desertion, because he will be taken care of and won’t have to run around the HMO getting his tests done. This purifying feeling disconnects them from the egoistic act they have committed."
And what about the abandoned elderly person, whose health and understanding are still good? How does he feel? "In all cases, he feels disregarded and humiliated, hurt and unwanted," says Prod. Shlomo Noy, director of the Rehabilitation Hospital at the Chaim Sheba Medical Center. "His children - all he has left in the world - no longer want him. It feels like a major, horrible disaster. This abandonment makes the elderly person feel worthless and therefore no longer wanted."
The elderly person isn’t inclined to expose these feelings of anger and insult. "Just like children of abusive parents don’t complain about their parents, abandoned elderly people don't condemn their deserting children," Prof. Noy says.
In some cases, the elderly patients use a cover story that their children are abroad, or say they are the ones who requested to be hospitalized so as not to trouble their family on the holiday eve.
"And then, a day after the holiday, the child who moved his elderly parent around like an object, comes back to pick up the 'baggage' without a hint of shame. 'What's the problem? I had fun, he was treated, and now I've come back to get him. What's wrong with that?'" Prof. Noy says bitterly.