For About and By Caregivers

A Week With Grandma

By Sherry Churchill

Sally was crying on the telephone!” exclaimed my bewildered mother “I didn’t know what to say to her! I think she is exhausted from taking care of mom and that makes her depressed!”

Those words made me feel a little bewildered and depressed myself. My mom and I were living in Florida, 1200 miles away from Aunt Sally and Grandma in Michigan. The family, most of us spread all over the country, had collectively agreed that Grandma should not go to a nursing home with strangers. Mom had tried to have Grandma and Grandpa in her home about 10 years ago, but it made her a nervous wreck and she only lasted a few months. Next, her sister Sally agreed to be the caretaker. Aunt Sally had the right temperament for caregiving. Always a homemaker, and possessing a calm personality, everyone agreed she might be successful. She was. But because she was so successful, caring for them both until Grandpa died 5 years ago, and now Grandma, at 98-years-old, it was easy for the rest of the family to forget that Aunt Sally had put her well-deserved personal life on hold. We were all living our lives conveniently ignorant of what it meant to be a caregiver. Mom traveled to Michigan once a year and took Grandma out for 3 hours. That was the extent of our side of the family’s assistance. My four cousins, (one lived 3,000 miles away), were of some help to her, but all had their own lives and families. Grandma required total care - diapers, wheelchair, everything. We never heard one word of complaint from Aunt Sally. Our intermittent and sparse telephone calls to her were always met with joy. She would cheerfully put Grandma on the telephone to say hello, and we hung up feeling good about ourselves, still with no real thought to Aunt Sally’s sacrifice.

Then came the day she cried on the telephone. That just didn’t sound like her. So after hanging up with my mom, I called my Aunt. Soon, I had put it all together. My cousin’s baby, Aunt Sally’s 9-month-old granddaughter, was to have emergency open-heart surgery in Los Angeles. Aunt Sally had never even seen her, and now she could die from the risky operation. Because of grandma, Aunt Sally couldn’t go to California to be with them during the 5-hour surgery. Her two sons could only be with grandma during the nights, and her other daughter, who could normally come for the days, was pregnant and couldn’t lift. As I listened, I realized that the only right thing to do was to volunteer to take care of grandma for a week. Flight arrangements worked out to play musical houses, and so it was that I visited my aunt’s home for a week of caregiving. “I worked in a nursing home 20 years ago,” I thought, “I can do this.” Aunt Sally left me pages and pages of instructions on medicine, bathing, bathroom, dressing, sleeping and eating. I assured her as she got on the plane for California that Grandma and I would be just fine. When I looked at Grandma for the first time in three years, I was startled. My little 4’11” dynamo of a grandmother now looked feeble, and she bent forward and to the side. I was pleased that she still walked on her own at 98 years old, but it was a disturbing shuffle, which sometimes threw her off-balance. She wore diapers. Even though she could communicate that she had to use the toilet, she often didn’t make it in time.

Her frail hands shook when she held her daily cup of coffee, sometimes spilling it down the front of her or on the table. Talking consisted of one or two words, not always the appropriate word for what she wanted or needed. Most of the time her mouth drooped and she drooled constantly. I immediately got the idea this might not be as easy as I’d figured. Little did I know that Grandma paces non-stop every night from 4 pm until 10 pm. That first night, I followed her back and forth, back and forth, up and down, up and down, from the moment I arrived until 10 pm, when I finally put her into to bed and she stayed. After unpacking, I crawled, exhausted, into bed. I suppose the baby monitor in my room helped wake me at 1:00 am from the “thump”. I jumped up and ran into grandma’s bedroom to find her clawing the wall, seemingly disoriented, and shivering. I put her back into bed and covered her, knowing that she might get up again and again. I slept very little after that and finally got up at 4:30 am to make coffee and read. Every bone and joint in my arms ached from the constant lifting the night before. It felt like arthritis, whatever that feels like.

By 6:30 am, grandma was up. My written instructions said I was to feed her, get her coffee with Karo syrup in it and sugar. I combed her hair and struggled with her robe and slippers. Being a childless woman, I wasn’t very good at dressing others. After the messy breakfast, we made a bathroom trip. Her diaper needed changing, as I hadn’t thought to take her the night before and she hadn’t indicated anything to make me think of it. I almost reeled from the odor of it, and had trouble prying apart her legs to make the change. I kept apologizing to her for the embarrassment of it, and my clumsiness, while she merely laughed. This was my very own Grandma and it wasn’t proper for me to see her undressed - that part was hard for me to handle. Soon, however, I didn’t even notice and my clumsiness improved. I didn’t forget the bathroom anymore and we only had one other accident that week.

Aunt Sally mentioned that Grandma was long overdue for a bowel movement, and so I was to give her Citrucel. Well, Grandma didn’t like Citrucel and anything I put it in was cruelly rejected. Nevertheless, Grandma had a bowel movement on Tuesday - I was very happy and noticed that, for a caregiver, a bowel movement can be the highlight of the day! I developed a new appreciation for my Aunt Sally. Especially when I was faced with cleaning up Grandma after the big event. It was mentally and physically exhausting to just get through each day with grandma and her pacing. She took a couple spills, a bad one where I was fortunate to catch her in time, and another minor fall onto her bottom. Lifting her back up was another story. As each day wore on, my arms and wrists hurt more and more. I was popping Tylenol for the pain to my newfound muscles! Up and down, up and down, Grandma’s exercise was walking from room to room and sitting down and getting back up. That is, until my cousin and I took Grandma to the Mall. I was thrilled to be getting out, but didn’t realize that wheelchairs don’t always fit in between the racks of clothing. I could never step away long to look at something for fear Grandma would attempt to climb out of the wheelchair. My cousin had her own hands full with two toddlers and, of course, her unborn child who was, at this time, hyperactive in the womb. We made quite a picture: A pregnant blond lady with two wild Indians, and a harried, clumsy middle-aged brunette with grandma in a wheelchair. Lunch was strange. Aunt Sally said Grandma eats hamburgers, so I bought her one. Grandma ate the whole thing, much to my surprise. However, about four, that’s four hours later grandma announced, “Have to spit”. I put a paper towel under her mouth and she politely spit up what looked like the whole burger. This was not “processed” hamburger, mind you, this appeared to be an un-swallowed version. I couldn’t fathom anyone but a chipmunk storing an entire hamburger in their cheeks for four hours.

Grandma was ruling my life. She set the pace, the timing and the rules. My once-per-day calls to my office back home were always dotted with, “No, grandma, sit here grandma, what do you need, grandma?”. I had no personal time whatsoever. I had to try to time my showers precisely 15 minutes after her 10 am nap began - sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. There were moments I wanted to run screaming from the house. I could never complete a one hour newscast or a talk show, or a telephone call. I couldn’t be careless to leave a door open or something sitting out on a table. I only dared to run to the corner store while grandma slept, fearing she would wake and fall. Thoughts of my aunt suffering this for the last 10 years were sobering, indeed, a shame unto us all. By the end of the week, Grandma was on her worst behavior. She discovered what room I disappeared into (you know, to sleep, dress, etc.) and she began entering that room every time I was in there (it didn’t have a lock). I first put up chairs as a barricade - she moved the chairs. Then I had to put a 19” TV in front of it to keep her from coming in. Later, she decided she was going in there anyway, whether I was in there or not, even with the door shut. I could tell when she was deciding to go in there when she was standing in the kitchen - she eyed the door from across the room, about 25 feet away. I would say, “No, grandma” and she would take off 90 miles an hour for that door. So fast, I couldn’t catch her until she was already in the room. This was no feeble 98-year-old lady! She was greased lightning when she wanted to be! Well, anyway, to make matters worse, the last time I stopped her from getting into the room, she turned around and her false teeth were hanging out - she looked like a walking skeleton! I said, “Eeek! Grandma, put your teeth back in!” She just walked around, with those things hanging out.

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