I’ve thought of myself as a caregiver for years now. I give lots of care to three beautiful, smart little girls. However, I realize now that parenting and caregiving are separate realms. All the love and devotion I invest in my children I get back threefold. That’s just standard for a normal parent. Your kids will always (at least at their young ages) run to see you with open arms yelling “mommy” with big, wide smiles and eyes glimmering like they’re lit from the inside…and all feels right with the world.
Caregiving for a loved one (especially one whom has dementia/regressing mental function) isn’t like that.
My grandfather has always been my patriarch and idol. I don’t know how many evenings I sat listening and soaking up his advice and wisdom in my youth. His words hovering in the back of my mind over so many decisions in my life. He was always there during difficult times assuredly telling me to “suck it up”, make a plan, and move forward. He’s always been a rock I could lean on reminding me that “life is good” (a normal end to most conversations) and to focus on the blessings.
On bad days now he doesn’t recognize me, but knows he should know me. On the worst days he doesn’t remember my father, hence my existence is wiped away as well. On bad days he wakes up throughout the night confused, on the worst days he “wakes up” but is still in his dream-state and is riddled with anxiety/fear with no knowledge of reality. His bathing and toiletry are no picnic for me, but I know that I must go into it laughing and smiling or my alpha male’s morose and apologetic attitude due to his need for assistance can quickly turn to a depressed state. His frailty may worry me, but it makes him disconsolate. He feels as if is body is his foe not allowing him to do even the little daily tasks so many of us take for granted.
My two year old believes they are best friends, as if they share some unseen connection, and is always at his side. At a doctors office recently my grandfather says “J, be quiet already”, she just looks at him and says “No Papa” and starts laughing uncontrollably and she crawls up on his lap. Then he starts laughing uncontrollably, then I am, and the nurse joins in too. These good moments are unforgettable.
On his best days he’s still giving orders, asking questions, and making demands like the Plant Manager he was most of his life. We have coffee every morning and dinner together every night and chat about family, news, weather, finances, and everything in between. Our conversations aren’t as deep or as filled with wisdom like those we had when we were both younger, but his good days still outnumber his bad days and I relish the time we have together after so many years living hours apart.
Starting this journey I didn’t know the heartache I’d experience when someone you love doesn’t recognize you, the pain it would cause me to feel his self-consciousness at needing help, or the frustration and many obstacles of dementia. I didn’t realize the full-context of a caregiver nor the simple lessons I’d learn.
I’m happier (although more exhausted) than I have ever been.
My grandfather is teaching my little family to take things in stride, how to more fully appreciate simple things, and how to just live in the present. My life had been so much about the plan, the budget, things to get done, my career, etc. (all still important), but it’s just as paramount to focus on the day and not lose the moment. Balance.
Thank you Grandpa. Life is good.