The unique ‘apostolate’ of Filipino grandparents

Trust the Filipino to give a foreign word a culturally-specific meaning. The word “apostolate,” an Old English term taken from Latin, refers to a messenger’s mission in the Christian tradition. But, in the playful jargon of the Pinoy senior citizen, the root word “apostle” is replaced by “apo” (grandchild), even as all the rich references of the biblical usage are retained. Thus, when Pinoy grandparents are asked what preoccupies them in retirement, the ready answer they give which requires no elaboration is that they are busy with their “apostolate.”

I know the feeling. Apart from going out into the open expressway on my motorcycle on a misty Sunday morning, there’s probably nothing I look forward to with more eagerness than a visit from my grandchildren. There are times when I myself would volunteer to pick up the eldest of them, 13-year-old Julia, from school on a rainy Friday afternoon. Armed with a book and an umbrella, I would wait for over an hour, half-wondering if I was late and she had taken the school bus. “You look pale,” I greet her the other day. “You must be hungry and tired. Shall I fix you our favorite sandwich?” Her snappy “yes” gladdens my heart and, in an instant, I reenact the unique “apostolate” that has prolonged the life of the elderly in our society.

In this new familial context, the word shines a good deal of light on the world of the Filipino elderly. In a 2007 study conducted by the University of the Philippines Population Institute, Dr. Grace T. Cruz noted that 97 percent of the old people surveyed have grandchildren, and 56 percent of them are engaged in their care. Much of this involves baby-sitting (78 percent), feeding (49 percent), playing with the child (45 percent), and bringing/fetching the child from school (19 percent). We can all relate to these findings. Still, one piece of information from the study startles me: Thirty-five percent of the grandparents are “solely in charge of taking care of any of their grandchildren.”

This is full-time apostolate, not the kind of leisurely activity that my wife Karina and I occasionally engage in when our grandchildren are left in our care for a few hours. The reasons behind the full engagement of the elderly in child care vary. The most common reason given (40 percent) is that the child’s parents are working, either out of town or abroad.  Interestingly, 27 percent of those surveyed said the child preferred to be with the grandparents. This preference cannot possibly be one-way. There must be something about the charming practice of Filipino “apostolate” that is equally satisfying to the elderly.

Indeed, the study provides fascinating clues to the mutuality of this arrangement. Compared to those who are not involved in the care of their grandchildren, the elderly who are actively engaged in grandparenting “rarely or never felt depressed, lonely, or sad.” The study notes that the difference between those who take care of their grandchildren and those who don’t is statistically significant. Still, I am inclined to think that the elderly in our society, compared to those in the more economically advanced countries, are less prone to feelings of isolation because, one way or another, they remain integrated in the life of their families and their local communities.

Overseas work and migration, however, are bound to challenge the fundamental elements of this culture in the most unexpected way. On a recent visit to the United States, I met a compatriot who had moved there a few years ago with his wife. What began as short annual visits ripened into extended stays to help take care of their grandchildren while their daughter and her husband were working. He gave up a modest law practice in the Philippines, hoping to find light part-time work while his wife looked after the grandchildren during the day. Unfortunately, his wife fell ill and, having no health insurance in the United States, had to return to the Philippines to seek treatment. He had to remain in America to take care of the “apo.”

The man sounded reasonably happy, if not resigned, as he told me about his vocation. But I couldn’t help asking myself what I would do had I been in his place. I probably would die early if I had to live abroad, and, at our age, living apart from my wife would be unthinkable. If no other arrangement could be made for the grandchildren, I probably would offer to take them back with us to the Philippines until they were old enough to be on their own.  But, I was certain their parents would object.

This dilemma acquired some saliency for me last week while we were visiting our grandson Xavier and his parents in Singapore. Karina and I have been doing this since he was born two years ago. We would scour the Internet for the most inexpensive flights, and take off for an extended weekend every so often just to see the little boy. A trip like this can be tiring, yet it is always exceptionally rewarding. I cannot think of a moment that can surpass the grace of being awakened in the morning by the hugs and kisses of a child. I know it would give me so much joy if I could see Xavi as often as I could be with my granddaughters Julia and Jacinta. But, I cannot imagine being a full-time nanny to any of them.

An aging population is an inescapable fact of modern society. This is the combined effect of longevity and declining fertility. With only 6.2 million belonging to age 60 and above, the Philippines is not yet an aging society, says the UPPI study. But, by 2025, that number will swell to nearly 12 million, which would make us an aging population by United Nations definition. A decent society cannot but plan for the wellbeing of its elderly.

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