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Long Distance Caregiving

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A Week with Grandma
By Sherry Churchill
(Page 1 of 3)

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.

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