Saturday, January 7, 2017

When Grandparents Need Help: What Your Kids Should Know

When my son was nine, his grandparents started needing more help, and our family started thinking about what it would look like if the grandparents moved out here and lived nearby. I remember telling Josh he might have to watch over them sometimes and was promptly greeted by a blank stare and the words, "What do you MEAN?"

"Well, Grandma might forget something and you could remind her," I said. "Or Grandpa might need you to walk with him if he wants to take a walk."

My son seemed to be OK with that, but I was having a harder time. Watching my parents grow older and frailer was painful, because no matter what our ages were, they were always my parents and somehow "in charge." My mother's difficulties with memory kept increasing, the older she got. I had become used to that, but when my father started having memory issues around age 85, I wished I could have put all of us into a time machine and flown us backwards.

As it turned out, my mother died before my parents could move anywhere, and my father moved to Fort Lee, NJ to be closer to my sister. When she left town a few years later, my dad was having even more memory problems and moved to a small, intimate assisted living-memory care house about 30 miles from our place.

Josh was in college by then, and visited his grandfather whenever he was home. But he had seen both grandparents struggling as they grew older. At first I worried about how this was affecting him, and then I figured something out: the journey my parents were on was relevant for all of us.

We might experience physical deterioration or we might deteriorate mentally, but we're bound to experience one or the other, the older we get. (Some, who are lucky, will barely deteriorate at all, but that's rare enough so I wouldn't want to count on it.) In other decades, we became familiar with illness and death at an early age. Why do we want to over-protect our kids from what life has in store for us?

Years before my father's difficulties became apparent, when Josh was ten, I brought him with me on what would become his last visit to his grandmother, who was close to the end of her life. Instead of being scared or upset, he surprised me by staying with my mother all day, talking to her and listening to her talk. They laughed and enjoyed each other's company in ways I couldn't possibly anticipate. And I couldn't have been prouder of my kid.

So if your parents are experiencing health problems or even crises, I would encourage you not to keep your kids away from them. Involving your kids in caring for grandparents can give them experiences they will always cherish - and never be able to get any other way.