I am not at a stage of life where I need help doing my own toenails. Barring unforeseen circumstances, I’m expecting to be my own mani/pedi provider for a good two decades or more, but you never know how life will turn out. I am, however, in that sandwich generation. Or I was. Since my father passed on a few years ago and my mother passed on a year and a half ago, the sandwich is somewhat more like open-faced tuna melt than a club. I have two emerging adult sons in the home and I have two brothers beyond it. One of those two brothers has had serious health needs of late, and that inspired this piece.

Here’s something they never tell you when you are a kid: One day you may end up clipping and filing the toenails of those you love. Earlier in life, I could not have imagined that, at some point, I would clip my father’s toenails, my mother’s toenails, and my brother’s toenails. I am cured (pedi, in fact) of my naïve beliefs. Sure, my wife and I trimmed our sons’ nails when they were little. We are good parents! Besides, if you’ve had a baby, you know those baby nails can be wicked sharp. Trimming them is simple self-preservation. But that was long ago—before the one son started using clippers on his own and the other son started trimming his own toenails with his teeth (he was really flexible back then).

In recent months, one of my brothers has had serious health issues and he’s been unable to trim his own toenails. That’s how I came to do it. Twice. I never, ever, thought I’d be doing that, but there I was, clipping, filing, and buffing. No polish, though. Shiny was not our goal. Besides, in our family, we don’t get fancy.

Years ago, my parents lived in a retirement home. For a while there was someone who provided this service for them but something interrupted that for a time. That’s how I came to trim the toenails of my parents a time or two.

You may be thinking, “That’s no big deal, Scott, let me tell you what I’ve had to do for a family member.” Indeed, this is a small thing. Ten small things at a time, in fact. Some of you are real family heroes, doing incredible things, year in and year out, for a loved one. I claim no contest. Still, toenails are a metaphor for the whole range of little things that many of us will need help with at some point, for a season or for the rest of our lives.

Toenails and the Future of Families

This all got me thinking about the future of families and about toenails. A stretch, you say? I think it’s all related.

One day, when visiting a loved one in a nursing home, I asked a nurse about toenails. I wondered how people who could no longer trim their own got it done. She told me that in this particular place, and I suspect it’s far from the only one, staff were not allowed to do the toenails of patients. Liability. So some people needed to have an outpatient visit to a podiatrist to have their toenails trimmed. Think about that a moment. The cost. The hassle. I got to wondering if it’s a reimbursable medical expense to have a podiatrist do your toenails.

I think a growing number of people are going to have only one of two options for their toenails: Howard Hughes mode or services provided by a family member or friend. Sure, the government has programs for many things, but I’m not sure there’s one coming for toenails.

So, I’m asking a serious question. Who will clip your toenails when you cannot?

Digital Inequality

Families have become more fragmented than in past. Children are less likely to be raised by their own two parents and more likely to experience churning (turnover) in family relationships. For an increasing number of people, there is instability around who is in the home. Someone will wish to argue the point, but I don’t see how these changes could fail to impact lifelong bonds within families. I think we will see a net decline in the number of committed and emotionally bonded family members that the average person can draw upon in times of need. Combine this with the fact that the people who are having families are having smaller ones. That means there will also be fewer siblings as potential resources, regardless of other changes. If you have a relationship with a relatively responsible sibling or two, and you’ve not yet begun to think of them as possible resources in your future, start being a little more imaginative. Not all assets are financial.

Strong attachment bonds start with the level of commitment and emotional availability children receive from their parents. In turn, attachment bonds throughout the family promote lifelong commitments among family members, such as from child to parent and sibling to sibling. These forces have operated throughout history to make it more likely—though far from guaranteed—that family members will take care of each other when needs arise.

No matter how large government’s role becomes in the lives of those who are older, there will be gaps to fill around simple needs. This is yet another way that inequality is partly, but inexorably, connected to the nature of families. Everyone has toenails but not everyone will have a family member to step in and help. If you needed one more reason to work to help families form stronger bonds, now you have it.

Personal Advice

Surely you know the joke about treating your children well because they will pick your nursing home. Forget that. You should hope they will willingly and carefully trim your toenails.

More broadly, we’d all do well to build and keep strong bonds with family and friends. You never know when you might be the one who needs help rounding up your little piggies, all the way home.