Reflections on Watching Grandpa Age

This was my latest essay for my Advanced Expository Writing class. While this isn’t addressed to you, or really to anyone, I thought this would make a good blog post, seeing as how it’s been too damn long since I posted, and these are issues that I’m sure you’ve been thinking about as well.

Now that I’m at college, I think about my grandpa less. It’s almost six years since my grandma, his wife, died and he moved in with us. In that time, he’s shown me what it’s like to age — or at least one version of it. He has dementia, and in the last six years I’ve seen him become less of himself — and it’s forced me to ask daunting questions about how I’ll age and who I’ll become.

As I watched my grandpa age in high school, I found him intolerable. He was (and still is) pathologically impatient, obsessively compulsive, and childishly petty. He could never stay in one place for long, which meant we could never stay in one place for long. He went to bed at 7:00pm, and the fear of waking him kept me from inviting my friends over on the weekends. He consistently made unfair demands of my mom, and often treated my dad with disdain or indifference, even when he tried to make my grandpa’s life easier. This was not the grandpa I had known, who for fourteen years had been fun, playful, and compassionate. Of course, he was still more or less the same man, but he had lost his wife and hated that he had to rely on us. (Not to mention that he already possessed those traits and living with him only made me more aware of them.)

On some level, I knew all of those things, but I still resented him, even hated him at times. And I hated that. Years passed, and I watched him gradually become weaker physically and mentally. The first few years he was with us, he could walk down the street to the nearby church; he could be engaged by movies and television. The walks became shorter and shorter and finally ended. Visual media could no longer hold his attention. He began to forget more and more. Having conversations with him became futile endeavors.

Watching him degrade, I started feeling more sympathy for him and seeing him more fully. I began to find humor in his quirks and better understood the interaction between his personality and his aging. He was still all the things I loved about him and all the things I couldn’t stand. This summer I spent a considerable amount of time with him — taking him to virtually every diner in northern New Jersey, just to get him out of the house. He was insufferable in trying to get me to take him places, but once we left, he was grateful. We didn’t talk much, but I could tell he was glad to be with me.

Who’s to say I’ll be any better in my nineties, if I even live that long? To what extent do any of us get to control how we age — whether we’ll be a burden to our families or retain our independence? I doubt much at all. My dad’s dad, my other grandpa, lived alone in Queens, NY for nearly 18 years; his mind stayed sharp, and my parents called him almost every night. He only needed our help in the last months of his life, and his decline was relatively swift. Whether he could have used our help in the years prior to his death, I don’t know, but he managed to convince us he didn’t. I assume it’s desirable not to need help from others in old age, and I respect my late grandpa for his resilience, but there is also strength in being able to accept help from others.

I look at my parents, both 58, and wonder how long it will be before I have to take care of them. They generally take good physical care of themselves — my dad in better shape than most men his age and my mom working hard to lose weight. Where on that old age spectrum will they fall? I wonder whether I’ll do as good job as they have with their parents. Mine have exuded patience and attentiveness, and while I believe they have passed on those traits to me, I don’t know if it will be enough.

All of this I consider as my grandpa lies in the hospital having just had a successful angioplasty and soon to receive a pacemaker, something that kept my grandma alive for years. I hope it will do the same for him, even though I wonder how long he will be able to live with my parents as he declines. Part of me hopes that he dies before a nursing home becomes necessary. I feel guilty about that, because I don’t really know what he wants, and I don’t think he’s capable of knowing what he wants. I just don’t want him to suffer too much. I guess that’s what I hope for me, too.

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