Have you gotten to that point yet when you realized your parents were getting older? In my mind, my parents will always be 38…which is weird because I’m 34. By that logic, one day I will be older than my parents...which my sore neck in the morning might agree with.
When I think of my parents, they are 38, healthy and happy. They were shoveling driveways like it was fun, staying up with friends well past my bedtime, and our house ran with them being magic fairies who filled the fridge and got us to sports.
At 26, that dream shattered. Roles reversed quickly, and I was left making all those things happen. I felt like a kid myself. Mom couldn’t see out of her left eye due to the breast cancer that had metastasized in her brain, so she needed to be driven everywhere. Dad’s stoke left him unable to remember the most basic of details, so making decisions became my responsibility. Getting from one place to another without getting lost – even in his own neighbourhood – was almost impossible. Dad’s concurrent heart attack meant that shoveling snow became dangerous to his already weakened heart.
But that was impossible, because they were 38, right?
I remember when I realized my grandparents were aging. Grams was my best friend. Honestly. My 91 year old grandmother was my bestie. We chatted for 2 hours at a time on Saturdays, making each other laugh and never starving for conversation. She remembered everything about my life – the good and the bad. We talked about beliefs, boys and booze. We gossiped. Our ears were attuned to what the other wasn’t saying, recognizing where things maybe weren’t going so well. She was healthy until the day her cancer took over her body, and then she gave up. As an adult, seeing her age and eventually die was a fact – and a feeling. She was old, and sick. Facts. But she felt ready to see her Maker, and had lived a good life. It made sense and even though it hurt, I could understand it.
By contrast, my other grandma had Parkinsons and was quite frail early in her 80s. She was moved into care facilities, given medications and some days, unable to eat more than Boost. My parents had to explain to young teenager me that Grandma was getting older, sicker and would eventually die. They did so lovingly with tact and respect for her but I was left with so many questions. My teenage self was able to comprehend the outcome, even if the medical terms felt foreign. I could understand the weight and the emotions that follow getting older. But the death aspect – that was explained as Grandma being with Jesus. Something I believe(d) and intuitively understood, by faith in Jesus. The logic of ‘why’ though, was lost on my younger brain so I rested in faith that I would eventually figure it out.
And then, there’s my kids. At 5 and 2, they ask about “Grandma in Heaven” as we call my Mom. They want to know why she was sick, what happened to her, and why she isn’t here to snuggle them. They don’t feel her absence because they never had her presence. But they see the contrast between what they have in my husband’s parents, and what they are missing in mine. They have a Grammy who spoils them, cares for them and loves them. And they have a Grandma in Heaven. That’s it. She’s a title, a name. She’s not a feeling for them (yet?). They can’t grasp where she is, or why she isn’t here to watch their soccer practices.
Then they see my Dad, who is still recovering from his stoke and heart attack. They see a Grandpapa who sometimes needs to be reminded to look both ways before he crosses the street. They see a playmate who holds Mom’s (my) hand when he steps off a curb, just like they do. Grandpapa doesn’t like to wake up before 9:30AM and who has a good long afternoon nap. That’s not like their other grandfather but they know that’s just Grandpapa. Recently, my son asked why Grandpapa doesn’t come for walks with us anymore, or why Grandpapa doesn’t drive him. We looked at each other, a bit stumped for an honest, but age appropriate response.
My husband and I have narrowed it down to a few key tactics when we talk to the kids about aging and sickness in their grandparents. Keep in mind, they are 5 and 2 – but I’d love to hear from you in the comments how you talk about this with your kids of different (or the same!) ages.
1. Dignity is the priority
It’s really easy to chalk up Granny’s memory loss to “She’s nuts!” or Grandpa’s shuffling to “He doesn’t want to walk, so he doesn’t.” It’s even easier to lie or lace your explanations with sarcasm or ridicule. Even when you think it’s all in good fun, or that it’s just a joke.
If you want your kids to treat you with respect and dignity, do it for them now. I read in a book by Jancee Dunn called “How to not Hate your Husband After Kids” that kids ‘learn what they live.’ (10/10 recommend this book by the way.) If you want your kids to learn to treat the elderly (and you) with respect, demonstrate that at every possible opportunity.
And, the elderly in your life hear it. They may need hearing aids or may be fully deaf, but they can sense it. They can sense the truth in your sarcasm, in your body language and tone.
So what do we do? We remind our kids of their grandparent’s worth and inherent value as children of God – and humans. We remind them of their grandparent’s contributions, and their love. In our house, it looks something like this:
Child: Mom, Grandma put the salt in the sugar container! My pancakes tasted super bad.
Me: Oh boy, that didn't taste right, did it?! Isn't it nice that Grandma wanted to show how much she loved you with pancakes? Maybe next time you can make her pancakes and you can be the one to put the sugar in.
2. Empathize with age appropriate examples
Sometimes, things like memory impairments or disabilities make it hard for grandparents to interact or engage with their grandkids like they would want to – or like you would wish they could. And young kids have a hard time understanding why that is the case.
We try to remind our kids to empathize, to put themselves in their grandparent’s shoes. Things like:
Child: Why can’t Grandpa play catch with me? He just sits around all day.
Parent: I know you want Grandpa to play with you because you love him. Grandpa has an owie in his brain and it makes it really hard for him to get up and play with you. It’s like when you got that owie on your knee when you fell off your bike last week – you didn’t want to play anymore and wanted cuddles and a show, remember? That’s like Grandpa – his owie is still hurting him so he just wants to cuddle you and watch you instead.
3. Problem solve together
My husband is like many stereotypical men and wants to solve all my problems! We often talk about him needing to just listen while I vent but sometimes, problem solving is just what we need. So, sometimes we do that with our kids when it comes to grandparents. We try to focus on what how we can be “helpers” and we find it builds responsibility and empathy.
Our five year old knows that he gets to hold Grandpa’s hand when we cross the street so Grandpa is safe. We’ve got our two year old in charge of Oma’s slippers to make sure she remembers where Oma puts them and brings them to Oma when she needs. Both of them know that when Grandpa’s alarm goes off, it’s time for him to take his pills and so they bring them his pill pack so he doesn’t have to get up.
4. Be available for questions…all the time
We are finding that, even if our kids’ questions are answered for the time being, they always resurface. And usually at 8pm at night when they are trying to fall asleep. Our son will often call us into his room and ask questions about heaven, death or sometimes why penguins lay eggs…it’s never a good time for these questions but we’ve agreed to take the time to answer them.
The patience to listen and the discernment to respond. It’s these nightime questions about Grandma in Heaven that helped our son understand Jesus’ sacrifice and commit his life to Christ. So is it really an inconvenience for us? No. Never.
What’s worked for you? We are always looking for new ideas!
You're never too old to need your parents, even if you think you are.
And when they start to get older, you wonder if they are able to help. If they can't remember where they put their keys, can they really grab my groceries? If they struggle to drive, can they really give me advice on my investments?
And when we start to get older, shouldn't we not need our parents as much? Shouldn't I be able to figure this out on my own?
Even if your parent is getting up there, or not here anymore, you will always need them. You'll always want them.
Today, there was an atmospheric river. For us non-meterological folks, that means it's dumping rain. Buckets and buckets and buckets. I dropped my youngest at preschool in my vehicle, and decided to drop K off at kindergarten right after. Why walk if the car was perfectly fine?
We sat and chilled in the kindergarten parking lot for half an hour before school. We played I Spy, touched all the buttons in the car and had a pretend race (picture a 5 year old grabbing the steering wheel and turning it as far and fast as he can). Dropped him off as the bell rang and hopped back in the car, turned the key and....
Battery died because our Veggie Tales music apparently took too much energy!
Cue the call. You know the call. We've all made the call. It's to the person who is speed dial 1 on your phone.
"Dad, are you home? I need you."
The man for whom I manage finances, for whom I make decisions, jumped right to the rescue. His brain often functions against his desires, but his daughter's need trumps it all. He has always been speed dial 1.
In the last 8 years, Dad has had challenge after challenge come over him. Life has been anything but easy and some days, not even kind. Some days, we've switched roles. Advice given in unconventional directions. Transitioning from him advocating and protecting me, to me getting to love him in doing the same.
But what hasn't changed is that he is still my Dad. He still answers every call, every text. He teaches ("Red connects to red, Rayel"), rescues and protects. He's my first call (sorry Adam!) even if I know he can't always help...but he always does have advice. And atmospheric river and traumatic brain injury be damned, nothing was going to stop him from helping me today. That's what my Dad does. And he's the best of Dads.
I'm 34 and in many ways, I take care of my Dad. But I need him just as much. Maybe that's it...we need each other. It changes as we both grow and age. As responsibilities shift, as more family members get added to the mix. But more than needing his hands or his head, I need his heart. I need his love. And of that, he freely, freely gives. And that happens regardless of brain function, heart function or crazy weather.
I am truly the luckiest daughter in the world.
I'd love to hear about your parents! How have they shown you love, or how do you wish they'd show you love?