In a piece published this weekend, Hendrik Hartog, author of Someday All This Will Be Yours, explained that the predominant view of the history of elder care in America isn’t actually very accurate. When thinking of the time before social security, senior homes, and assisted living, people too often imagine families in which children cared for aging parents out of familial love and filial duty, routinely piling three generations into houses together.
But, as Hartog writes, “this portrait is too rosy”:
If we confront what old-age support once looked like — what actually happened when care was almost fully privatized, when the old depended on their families, without the bureaucratic structures and the (under)paid caregivers we take for granted — a different picture emerges.
For the past decade I have been researching cases of family conflict over old-age care in the decades before Social Security. I have found extraordinary testimony about the intimate management of family care: how the old negotiated with the young for what they called retirement, and the exertions of caregiving at a time when support by relatives was the only sustenance available for the old.
In that world, older people could not rely on habit or culture or nature if they wanted their children to support them when they became frail. In an America strongly identified with economic and physical mobility, parents had to offer inducements. Usually, the bait they used was the promise of an inheritance: stay and take care of me and your mother, and someday you will get the house and the farm or the store or the bank account.
But of course what was at stake was never just an economic bargain between rational actors. Older people negotiated with the young to receive love, to be cared for with affection, not just self-interest.
Someday All This Will Be Yours presents the decade of research Hartog conducted, a project he first undertook during an extended stay near his own elderly mother. He eventually assembled a database of more than 200 cases in which a caretaker brought suit, alleging that the deceased had failed to make good on a promise of quid pro quo. In each case, the plaintiff claimed to have been promised, either implicitly or explicitly, that, in exchange for late-life care of their relative, employer, neighbor, or friend, they’d been promised some later recompense such as money or land. As Hartog explains, in order to win the case the aggrieved would have to prove both that a bargain existed and that they’d upheld their half. More often than not, they were unable to do so and were left with nothing.
Such cases, Hartog found, were essentially standard legal business; run-of-the-mill trials evidencing a social dynamic that we’ve somehow largely forgotten in our age of social services. Hartog’s goal for the project was to better understand this history of intimate transaction:
By working through how and why such agreements were made, as well as the consequences for the individuals who made them, we learn much about the moral and legal lives of nineteenth- and early twentieth- century family members, labor conflicts within families, responsibility for and care of old people, the legitimate and illegitimate uses of family property and wealth, and the internal economy of family work.
Hartog describes these cases as examples of what legal anthropologists call “cases of trouble,” which reveal the norms of what ought to have happened in a particular culture by way of documenting claimed violations. So what this trove of legal documents offered Hartog was an extraordinary look into what went on within households of the time. The trial transcripts, by nature, offered great detail:
On one side, on the side of the child or younger person who claimed to have earned an inheritance, it was always important to describe exactly what work had been done and how, because the work itself, in combination with promises, might produce entitlement, a right to compensation. On the other side, it was usually important to minimize, diminish, or otherwise challenge the work for exactly the same reasons. In the end, the results were rich and detailed (and tested) testimony about who did what, how they did it, how it was solicited, how negotiations over family work occurred, and how the nature of the work changed over time as families aged and reconstructed themselves and as generations and individuals jockeyed for position within those families.
The book, then, uses these legal cases to give us great insight into not just the history of old age in America, but also more generally into American family life over the past hundred and fifty years. Hartog takes us up through the present, a time in which people live much longer than before, and have their care managed and financed by still-relatively-new social structures.
The book’s cover has been an in-house favorite this season, with its old pocket watch somewhat slyly connoting a magician’s lolling pendulum (“You’re getting verrrry sleepy… You will take care of me in my old age...”). The cover also is reminiscent of those Patek Philippe luxury watch ads, the ones depicting a wealthy father and son, captioned “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely take care of it for the next generation.” Those ads usually just read as subtle anti-estate-tax propaganda, but Hartog’s new book lets us see them in a slightly different light.
[Update: Hendrik Hartog discussed the book with Diane Rehm on January 19th. Listen here.]