Photo Diary | Gramps |

Friday, July 12, 2013

Another photo diary this week with an extra helping of the diary part. Yesterday my tots and I went to visit my paternal grandfather in his new home which is a nursing home. I don't know if any of you have visited a nursing home before but it was my first time. It's like the sweetest and most heartbreaking place I had ever been. After we spilled out of the car and started walking up I noticed I was twirling my hair something fierce. So I stopped for a minute after realizing I was feeling maybe a little nervous.  My grandfather has dementia and I think I was afraid he wouldn't recognize us in this new place and I wouldn't know what to do because I also realized in that moment that I could count on one hand the times I have seen him outside of his house - not to include the two block radius around it.  As soon as we went in I was at once relieved because we had stopped at another two nursing homes that, thank goodness, turned out to be the wrong ones, this place had a much more breathable feel. In the car to leave for our visit I realized I didn't bring the address or remember the name but vaguely remembered where it kind-of-might-be-at, and if you have ever tried to wrangle a teenager and twin toddlers in a car - well, once you have accomplished that you just go. So we went on a sort of scavenger hunt. Third stop was a charm and we found the right place. 

Once we got in we were quickly surrounded by grandma's and grandpa's all with wide shining eyes looking at us with hopeful smiles. We were cornered by the door, they wanted to look at us and touch us, ask a million questions and tell us a million stories. We spent a few minutes being patted on the hands and returning inkind a few shoulder rubs and high fives. We shared names and ages until one of the staff members wheeled away a nice granny who was definitely the ring leader (and obvious repeat offender), clearing a path for us (don't worry we ended up giving her attention throughout our time there - she was fast to track us down again. and again. she was also wheeled off again and again by the ninja-like staff.) Soon we found my grandfather who was being walked down the hall.

This was the first time I had seen my grandfather being walked too. I'd always known him as the one who took me for walks, who scooted off on his old beat up schwinn bicycles to work at his beloved job at the university museum. He used to be a teacher and has always been an artist perpetually covered in ink blots and eraser shavings (and cookie crumbs). The first hour was tough as I realized he suddenly(?) could hardly walk on his own, even with his nursing home issued walker (that's why he's there now. he's declined). It was slightly uncomfortable, an adjustment for me, to see him adjusting, or not adjusting and our conversation staggered back in this tiny corner of the building they brought us to visit in. My kids were quiet, unusually quiet and my grandfather unusually somber, achingly confused and tiny. I'd never imagined he could look so small. At first he kept asking me if I knew what was going on and I could at least confidently answer "no, I don't." Though I am not sure that was the best answer. So I'd back it up with "we are here to visit you." He told me he kept being followed, everywhere, and I said maybe they think you are a spy and he laughed and said "good one." Then he'd ask again "Where are we? I don't know these people." We went in and out of a painful reality like this for a while.

I quickly decided the air would all do us good and once we headed outside it changed, he seemed more himself. Relaxed. We talked in several different time periods and I found clever and not so clever ways to say the same information with the same enthusiasm as I did the first time around. Sometimes in our conversation we were in his backyard and he kept offering me to have grandma make us a snack. He also kept asking me where grandma was which made my heart feel like it was sinking. (grandma is at home.) Sometimes we were at the university and he would refer to the other elderly people as his "kids" - meaning his students. This made my heart swell. There were several breakthroughs though where he would ask which of my kids showed artistic abilities and how he wanted to make sure that they got some of his artwork to inspire them . . . and remember him. It would mean something in 20 years. (it means something now). And that I needed to remind him before we left to get some artwork together for them. (that's at home too.)

In his new environment the dementia was more apparent than ever. As I said our conversations spanned decades in the matter of seconds. But I also don't think I have ever spent a moment with my grandfather totally alone. While our conversations were the most surreal and confusing I have experienced thus far, there were also these moments of total emotional honesty. An honesty I had never really seen from a man who used humor at every turn, there was never a moment when a joke wasn't the most appropriate response and where I wasn't in a constant string of giggles. Never a time when I said "I love you gramps" it wasn't met with a chuckle and a hard slap on the back. He kept asking me "did they call you to come see me?" And "why are you here?" And I would say "because I love you Grandpa." And all times but once he would move on to a different time period or another question and that one time he didn't do that he said "You were always a soft one. You always had such a soft heart. I have always loved that so much about you." Then he immediately fell asleep which I was thankful for because I didn't want him to see the tears in my eyes.

For a little background I know my paternal family but not my actual father - we've only met once. My grandparents are all I have really known from one half of who I am. I am grateful for that. I never once wondered where I came from because they are both excellent story tellers. My grandfather has taught me to appreciate the art of being creative, history (he was a history teacher), and he was the first person that showed me being smart was pretty much the coolest thing you could be and laughter was the best way to approach life. He always invited me back in time and to appreciate the past. He introduced me to japanese kung-fu movies and old-time radio shows that I would listen to while going to sleep all through my childhood, he made business cards for me on the printing press he had in his garage. It was difficult to see my grandfather in a nursing home not knowing where he was, maybe at times not knowing who exactly he was. But he reminded me of who I am, who my kids are and being able to pass that on, well, that's something I can never express to him fully - at least not without the risk of getting a whack on the back that would probably knock me over.

Leaving was difficult and they have a sort of daycare drop-off system where they swoop in and you are just suppose to leave without saying goodbye. I still don't like this method, with kids or elderly. But they whisked him off assuring me he won't remember you were here. Then the social worker came up and said to me, "I think he will. I haven't seen him smile since he's been here, today was the first time. 'Okay,' she corrected, 'the second time. The first time was when they brought in a therapy dog.' But I still think he will remember and he didn't smile quite like he did today." Either way I am planning on giving him as many memories with us as possible. While I can't change the fact that he has dementia and that he won't be here forever, he helped me to know who I am and I just want to help him remember who he is too. Even if it's only for a second here and there. I think my weekend is going to be partially spent creating some artwork with the kids for his new walls. Which sounds like a perfect way to spend the weekend. Hope you all enjoy yours as well!


  1. Christine. This was painfully hard for me to read (although not in a bad way), and I pretty nearly had to skim it. It takes me straight back to the time my own paternal grandfather spent in a nursing home. It was a hard, poignant, painful time for us and yet every time I think about wishing it hadn't happened, I remember that it was because he spent those years in a nursing home that he saw me get married and met my son, his great grandson.

    Thank you for writing this. And thank you, from me, for visiting your granddad. XO

  2. You are a beautiful writer and this post moved me to tears in my cubicle. It is so touching to read about how much love you have for this powerful, wonderful force in your life and how much he has for you, even if he is confused about a lot of things in his life right now. He isn't confused about you and your soft heart. I have the strongest love for the elderly, even if it's always the saddest knowing how short their time with us is. This was beautiful and heartwarming and heartbreaking to read this morning. I hope you have a gentle weekend making art with your little ones for your grandpa.

    I'll echo Lauren here, but thank you from me too for visiting him. It's clear from the way you were bombarded when you walked in that not enough people visit their loved ones in nursing homes. xo

  3. Wow this is really touching. This process of aging is hard. My grandfather has all his mental faculties but is on a constant emotional roller coaster. Crying, angry, sad and desperate. One minute he'll be telling he's okay with dying because it's what he did in this life that matters and he's done well. The next minute he'll be crying not wanting me to leave because he's afraid he'll never see me again. Then angry that he's so sick and wanting to die. I don't handle this situations as gracefully as you do, I think I'll be rereading this before I go see him.

    Thank you for sharing.

  4. This is was a beautiful post. And you seem to be handling this much better than I did. My grandfather had to go to a nursing home a few months ago and passed away a few weeks ago. I never got to go visit him (I live in Australia, he lives in the US) and missing his last few months was so hard for me.

  5. Oh Christine, I have teared up about 3 times whilst reading this and in the end gave in to full on sobs. This was hard to read for me for many reasons. My grandmother, who is the strongest most energetic person I know, has started to show signs of dementia. I live very far away from her which makes it even harder. I know when the time comes, she will refuse a nursing home (she is that willful) and likely try to pretend that everything is fine. I am so glad you wrote this post because I have been so scared about sending her to a home but this post showed me that there are good ones out there. I have a huge smile on my face at the fact that they have therapy dogs.

  6. Oh Christine, life is rough sometimes, isn't it? Although I'm glad your grandpa is somewhere people can take care of him, it still breaks my heart. I'm sure that the art from Milo and Luca will bring a smile to his face... how can those grandkids not?!

  7. Beautiful, beautiful post, Christine. The relationship you share with your grandfather is truly special; HE is truly special. I didn't grow up with or reap the benefits (of wisdom) from having grandparents. Reading your post reminds of its importance. This past Thanksgiving I volunteered at a nursing home. I thought I would be working in the kitchen and helping to serve food. When I arrived, the staff told me what they really needed was for the volunteers to simply spend time with the residents. It was, hands down, the best way to spend a Thanksgiving morning. I went there to give the gift of time, but I definitely got the better end of the deal. The stories they have to tell and the subtle life lessons they impart are the best gifts. I can't help but think of your grandfather in that same way, as giving a great gift (to you or anyone who wishes to spend time with him). Enjoy every bit of it and let him keep reminding you how wonderful you are. Because you are. xo


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