Tag Archives: aging

Fatherhood, Care-giving and its Caveats, Dr. Robert Zuber

20 Jun

For those of you who have endured years of my Father’s Day commentary, this might seem like an outlier message.  Bear with me, if you can stand to do so, as I attempt to blend a tribute to fathers with a bit of what I hope at least will seem like relevant policy analysis.  You can let me know if you approve of the results – with caveats of course.

Like many of words we use, misuse and overuse, “caveat” has a range of meanings, but mostly related to declarations or even warnings of stipulations or conditions that might impact our commitments; or alternatively it refers to “limitations,” as in ways in which what is presented to us as sufficient ‘truth’ is more accurately a restrictive (sometimes dramatically so) viewpoint on a situation or incident that begs for a more comprehensive and thoughtful lens.

“Caveats” in both senses have long been a part of the UN’s nomenclature, used by states to contextualize their investments of funding and personnel, and by NGOs and policy experts to assess the “missing elements” in what might otherwise be helpful analysis of security, development or social issues.

The conditions/stipulations aspect of “caveats” was on display Wednesday in the UN Security Council where members were given candid and thoughtful briefings by Force Commanders on the state-of-play in peacekeeping operations.   In our view, these briefings are not held frequently enough to accomplish what Nigeria noted were more flexible adjustments to what at times could be seen as peacekeeping mandates with eroding relevance.  Briefings are also not held often enough to allow some of the women who were in uniform in Council chambers to share assessments and experiences through their own, still-too-often-ignored perspectives.

One notable feature of this briefing was the practice by some troop contributing countries to issue “caveats” to full and unconditional participation in peacekeeping operations. These contributors, in essence, maintain the right to identify “conditions” based on judgments of operations that needlessly jeopardize the well-being of seconded troops; conditions which would therefore exempt such troops from obeying to the letter relevant orders of Force Commanders.

The need for such caveats, as noted by New Zealand (which has recently revoked its own), relates in part to the perception of some states that UN peacekeeping operations are burdened by mandates the complexity of which overwhelms training and capacity in the field, thus exacerbating relevant security threats.   But as other states and commanders noted, if caveats are warranted, there is a proper time and place for them.  Such stipulations should be stated as early in the process as possible.  Moreover, caveats must remain flexible enough to accommodate shifting circumstances, including successful UN efforts to address field concerns.  In other words, reasonable caveats should not be posed as last-minute, categorical demands but as timely and flexible responses to conditions that are not yet sufficient to warrant unconditional assent.

The UN will continue to grapple with the challenges of caveats in peacekeeping operations. Like that or not, we can all at least acknowledge that, in some form or other, we have our own caveats; we all have “conditions” for things, even important things like marriage and family.  Some of those conditions even apply to our erstwhile caregivers, specifically regarding the ways in which we want to be cared for — and ways we don’t — that are independent of others’ need to “care” for us.   Many of us have overwhelmed others, and been overwhelmed ourselves, in caregiving scenarios that were much more about the one setting the terms of care than about the one receiving the caring attention.  Not all “caring” feels like caring and such feelings are not always unwarranted: a bit like the security assessments of UN member states, the conditions for and benefits of caregiving are to a significant extent in the eyes (and hearts) of its recipients.

Beyond conditions, there is the scenario of “caveats” as limitations. Last Tuesday at the UN, Chelsea Clinton headlined an event co-sponsored by MenCare Advocacy and @UNFPA at which a report was released entitled “State of the World’s Fathers.”  The full report can be accessed at www.sowf.men-care.org.

This latest iteration of our “state of the world,” which I must say I was a bit reluctant at first to pick up, painted a generally positive (if limited) assessment of the status (and potential benefits) of fathers as caregivers, a role important for childless men (such as myself) to assume as well.  My reluctance was related in part to the increasing tendency within UN (and other) circles to assume generic caregiving deficits on the part of men (based on restrictive definitions as much as on male sloth) along with the notion that the value of fathers lies primarily in their willingness to be engaged, as the report puts it, “in ways that women want.”  Given that the report fails to highlight let alone enumerate the manifold outcomes and contexts of “caregiving,” the report seems to “patronize” male caring capacity more than explore, encourage and even celebrate its diverse manifestations.

The report utilizes as its one, relevant lens for caregiving, father interactions with young children and domestic chores, citing (quite rightly) that worldwide such men spend less time at these responsibilities than women do.  This is a gap that most fathers I know (across many cultures) both fully acknowledge and have done something to address, in some limited instances a lot to address.

It is useful for this report to identify caring gaps and to suggest remedial options in the (still too many) situations where remediation is warranted. But it is surely a bit disingenuous to create some essentialist equivalence between “caregiving” and time spent with young children and ironing boards.  Caregiving is of course very much about those things, including for fathers; but it is also about vocational and life mentoring, about getting up at 2AM during a thunderstorm to patch an elderly neighbor’s leaky roof, about inspiring people through classrooms and religious institutions, about offering assistance to a lonely traveler, about making personal sacrifices to enhance the educational prospects of family members, about holding the hands of people suffering from grief or tragedy, about being reliable to others and faithful to our word, about adjusting ourselves to the new conditions (caveats, if you will) of evolving young lives rather than forcing youth to become imperfect replicas of our imperfect selves.

There is so much more that could be listed here.   Caregiving by fathers and others is incredibly multi-faceted.   It requires a flexibility and fairness of spirit.  It involves an ability to process kindly and attentively the (sometimes maddening) demands and limitations of others, including of course, partners and children.

Many of the fathers I know do these and any number of related things.   They might wish to have more time with their children – or to assist the children of others – but they are often doing things that bring value and benefit to the home, and also to the world, our world, the world that any children they have sired are soon destined to inherit.  If preparing and guiding people, young and old, to face and cope with challenges in these messy times cannot be fully acknowledged as “caregiving,” I’m at a loss to understand its meaning. If providing materially (and hopefully emotionally) secure contexts for growth and challenge is not “caregiving,” regardless of whether it corresponds neatly to what some others might “want,” then we need urgently to find new terms to honor this service.

As most of us can attest from our own life experiences, father doesn’t always know best.   But just as clearly, many fathers and their male surrogates do much to help children and others prepare for hopeful, thoughtful, independent participation in a complex, rapidly shifting and too-often unsettling world.  The specifics of this caring might at times seem out of context and rather “old-school,” and those specifics might well include too many baseball practices and too few dirty diapers. Still the reliability of this caregiving and the willingness to work through the many stages and caveats of others’ lives are essential to positive growth and development.  I am personally and extraordinarily grateful to the many fathers in my own contexts and around the world who, through their actions and values, stay this challenging course.

Avoiding Inter-Generational Gender Traps

14 Aug

As many readers of this Blog already know, the primary preoccupation of GAPW is with the ‘gender dimensions’ of UN policies – from peacekeeping and disarmament to youth leadership and social development.   Together with program partners at UN headquarters and in many communities and countries worldwide, we are convinced that efforts to promote women’s full participation in political and social life, as well as ending impunity for gender violence (which itself constitutes a significant barrier to participation) are key to both effective international security and the promotion of sustainable development priorities.

A gender lens is also valuable in approaching the Fourth session of the Open Ended Working Group on Aging.  It is true, as a brochure distributed by the Subcommittee on Older Women notes, that “older men and women both face age discrimination but older women also face cumulative effects of gender discrimination throughout their lives, including less access to education and health services, lower earning capacity and limited access to rights to land ownership, contributing to their vulnerability in old age.”

But there are other vulnerabilities for older women which are cultural in origin, and which may constitute the ‘final frontier’ of gender discrimination.  In my years of providing faith-based counseling for communities of largely older women and in my current work characterized in part by providing mentoring options for women working at UN headquarters, it is clear that older and younger women remain disconnected, that most younger women do not have older women who are not their mothers as ‘accompanying elders’ in their lives and, perhaps most relevant in this context, that younger women are not prepared (and indeed are largely ignoring) the long term, “cumulative” effects of all aspects of this subtle gender discrimination, but especially those aspects that are embedded in cultures that value physical beauty over character and worldly riches over connection.

Despite the dramatic anxiety that too often accompanies women in the early years of their life journey, these women often believe that they can alleviate some of the implications of anxiety and develop a competitive edge by ‘purchasing the surfaces.’   In this context, that means spending lots of energy on the things that win approval of peers and family members – focusing on enhancing physical beauty, having a clearly articulate career path, finding a mate and engaging in conventional family life.

None of these are problematic in themselves, perhaps aside from their implications for the lives of many women as they age.  Eventually, the wrinkles cannot be hidden, the hair greys, joints ache more often, life partners become more sporadically attentive, children move to distant cities, skills that defined a career are supplanted by new technology in younger hands.

In other words, the things of their youth that made these women ‘valuable’ in the eyes of their societies (and often in their own eyes as well) begin to slip away, sometimes slowly, other times with a speed that would shock a gazelle.

Many older women report feeling ‘invisible.’   The world’s attention has flowed elsewhere.   And sadly and unacceptably, respect and appreciation, including too often from younger women, flow away as well.

When that happens, the capacity for generosity is compromised.   The capacity to communicate hope through the aches of aging is undermined as well.  Prospects for life-giving connectivity are reduced to peer groups that are sometimes more restricted than the relationships of school – needlessly age and class specific.

In such circumstances, women are the losers.  Indeed, we are all the losers.    The ‘cumulative’ effects that lead too often to social isolation, feelings of ‘invisibility’ and other psychic deficits are, especially in western societies, undermining respectful and dignified engagements with the ‘last years,’ years that we are all destined to face and for which we are so often emotionally and materially unprepared.

As important as the Convention proposed by delegates to this Working Group would be, these psychic deficits cannot be addressed solely by recourse to resource-focused policies.   This is a problem that will more likely be solved through a robust, multi-generational engagement, an engagement that requires older women to be transparent about the ‘traps’ that they fell victim to in their early years, and younger women who are demonstrably less and less content to rely for their self-worth on things they will surely lose long before their life cycles have run their course.

This ‘final frontier’ of gender discrimination is deeply embedded and too rarely interrogated.   As we lobby for more health, employment and education options for aging populations, we should commit to expose the cultural ‘traps’ that keep too many younger women anxious and too many older women invisible.

Dr. Robert Zuber

Bookends: The UN Takes on the Challenges of Aging

13 Aug

August 12 was one of those interesting and even ironic days at the UN.   On the one hand, there wasn’t much happening in either the North Lawn or Conference Building as many delegations and secretariat officials have wandered off for a bit of pre-September rest.   What WAS happening though was certainly worthy of attention by all policymakers – a morning session devoted to youth empowerment and an afternoon session of the Fourth Open Ended Working Group on Aging.

For GAPW, which has long been involved in youth development, a focus on the elderly is both timely and directly relevant to our mandate.   Given general increases in life expectancy based, in large parts of the world, on increased access to higher quality health care, there is little reason to believe that our seniors cannot be productive contributors to the growth and maintenance of human security frameworks – in both local and international contexts — long past any arbitrary retirement ages imposed by our organizations and agencies.

One question that we struggle with almost daily:  How do we promote the transition in leadership to younger persons without disenfranchising older persons who, in many cases, provided the conceptual and logistical guidance that built and maintained our organizations over many years?

This is clearly a more challenging problem than it might first appear. The ‘cult of youth’ that plagues much of western culture and which is, so far as we can tell, more a marketing ploy than an intentional policy choice, has limited value for the development of the fair and robust human security frameworks that we endeavor to promote.  Creating narrow peer frameworks in a world that offers virtually limitless options for meaningful participation, friendship and intimacy seems almost a cruel rebuke to those who have labored over many years to dismantle barriers of race, gender, sexual preference and, yes, age.

We support the movement, suggested by the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and many other States, to create a process leading to the adoption of universal standards of treatment for older persons.  At the same time, we resist any policy that inadvertently reinforces the ‘ghetto’ that too many older persons find themselves increasingly restricted to.   Perhaps even more than younger people, older citizens require human connection as much as fresh air and mobility assistance.   Services for the elderly matter – and States are right to make this more of a priority — but what matters more is cultures that promote cross-generational interaction that is open to and respectful of diverse lenses on how the world works, and how it can work more effectively.

The elderly are not a ‘population group’ as some delegations casually referred to them, but rather a diverse set of human longings and capacities seeking to remain relevant in the eyes of those with skills and energy to whom they have (perhaps not quickly or gracefully enough) given way.

The peaceful planet we all seek will be characterized in part by the welcome extended to new life and the gratitude extended to those at life’s end.   The elderly represent the direction towards which we are all headed.   An investment in older people – not only their material conditions but their ongoing, respectful connection – will yield great benefit.  After all, the time will come soon enough when we will take their places at the end of the life cycle.

Dr. Robert Zuber