October 15th, 2006
Life can change suddenly. Sometimes, it does. On September 24th mine did.
My grandfather has Alzheimer’s. Grandpa was only officially diagnosed within the past year, but certainly has been suffering with the early effects of the disease for much longer. Within the past year or so the disease has finally advanced to the point that it had a noticeable effect on his daily life, and then it reached the official diagnosis.
Once Grandpa’s condition became clear we were forced to consider what plans we should make for the future. Grandpa was becoming increasingly unable to take care of himself, and Grandma wouldn’t be able to take care of him indefinitely. They would eventually–sooner or later–need help. We talked about what we would do at that time and came to the agreement that when Grandma and Grandpa needed more help I was the one best suited to move in with them and provide the additional help they needed.
But we didn’t know how soon Grandma would need help. In a month? Two months? Six months? Or a year?
And that is where the suddenly comes into this story.
I think Grandma wanted to be able to take care of Grandpa until she was physically incapable–that is, until someone was needed to physically help Grandpa around and perform other labors that she physically couldn’t do. But sometimes we can’t do everything we would like, and by the middle of September Grandma realized she was mentally exhausted and couldn’t take care of Grandpa alone anymore.
Arlan has been living with Grandma and Grandpa P ever since he went to college. He has provided them with general assistance, but while in college–and now that he is out of college and employed–he couldn’t (and can’t) provide the full time assistance that Grandma needed. So on Sunday September 24th he came home with the message, “Grandma needs you now.”
So I packed my clothes and computer (the things I use on a daily basis) and left with Arlan that night.
Such is the beginning of the next great adventure.
It has been several weeks now and I am beginning to settle in. It will be several months, I think, before I am truly settled in, but at least by this point I have learned the basic necessities of daily life so that every moment is no longer a “new experience” where I must figure out how to deal with it. I now know how to use the electric can opener (trickier than I expected) and the dishwasher (I still think cleaning dishes by hand gets the dishes cleaner, and I would argue it is faster).
In this change my situation has been turned on its head. Before I lived with all my brothers and sisters in a large rural family. Now I’m living with two grandparents, one brother, and a cousin on the edge of a city. Before dinner required ten pounds of potatoes. Now dinner requires maybe two pounds of potatoes. Before the nearest small town store was ten minutes away, the nearest chain grocery store was twenty minutes away, and downtown thirty or so minutes away. Now the nearest chain grocery store might be three minutes away, and downtown ten minutes, or less.
Life has also changed in many more subtle ways, but the most mundane are often the ones that strike most forcefully. In the beginning I always thought the amount of food I was preparing for supper wasn’t enough. There was too little meat. There was too little potatoes. Then, much to my surprise, such a small amount was actually more than plenty. But of course. I eat one piece of chicken. Everyone else in this house eats only one piece of chicken. That means we only need five, not fifteen. I needed to keep doing the math to reassure myself that the meals were not about to come up woefully short.
There is the struggle of adjusting my thinking to the new environment, but there is also the struggle of adjusting the environment to me. Neither of these adjustments has been made completely yet. In matters of adjusting my environment, both me and the people around me must give a little. Growing up in a large family, I was accustomed to structure. Grandma and Grandpa, by contrast, were used to a much less structured environment. So I have added, and intend to add even more, structure to life at Grandma and Grandpa’s while at the same time I have accepted that there won’t be as much structure as I am accustomed to back home.
In my own personal life I am still seeking my own new balance. I am a person who normally lives on a schedule. Certain things happened certain days, and certain things at certain times in each day. This type of structure in my life keeps me focused so that I don’t feel as if I am floundering around, lost, and with no idea of where I am going or what I am trying to accomplish each day. It also kept me accountable to myself because if I had a schedule I knew when I was supposed to be doing what, and if I wasn’t doing it. I lost my old daily schedule when my life changed and I’m still trying to get my new schedule together. I have a general schedule thrown together, but it takes time to figure out exactly how much time should be spent on each task required during the day, and when it is most efficient to do each job. I’m not there yet. While I wish I were, I realize that by any reasonable measure I am doing well enough.
But what, one might ask, do I think of all this change?
I consider it a great honor to be able to help people when they are in need, and particularly in great need. So I am glad to have this opportunity to help my grandparents. But mixed with this is something else, another feeling that springs from the knowledge of why my help is needed. One could say the mortal pall hangs over all of this life, but it stands with particularly visibility in my present situation. Alzheimer’s at the end is a fatal disease and though it won’t kill Grandpa today or tomorrow there is a very real way in which I feel called to a very long death watch. It’s not something thought about in every moment of every day, but it is a reality that informs everything. It’s not something that we really talk about, but we all know–even Grandpa–that I have come because he is growing increasingly unable to take care of himself. I have come to help him, yes, but then another voice echoes in the silence that I have come to watch him slowly die, his dignity and his mind stripped from him by inches, day by day. Grandpa knows it. I know it. We all know it. It is like that monster that lives in the house with us, which nobody wants to talk about, but sometimes we do, a little.