Caregiving, When Everything Hurts

A week ago, I visited my Pop Pop for his 96th birthday. I brought a big sign with me, with dozens of messages from people all over the country – family in Indiana, friends in Mississippi, Twitter followers from Boston and D.C. and Kansas. Even Arthur, who I introduced in my first post here, got in on the surprise. “How ya doin, pal?” he wrote.

“Pop Pop = awesome!”

I figured my grandfather, the best keeper-in-toucher I know, would get a kick out of hearing from everyone. He used to love to write and receive letters, and though he’s lived in the same small town his whole life, you’d never know it by his address book. His friends are everywhere.

So I was kind of shocked by Pop Pop’s response. Or, non-response. I presented the poster to him on the big day – “Look, Pop Pop! All of these people are wishing you a happy birthday! Even the president of the AARP Foundation!” – and he barely said a thing. Maybe he was tired? No big deal, I thought, we can read through it together tomorrow.

But he wasn’t interested the next day, or the day after that. The sign stayed on his dresser, untouched, the rest of my visit.

Pop Pop isn’t himself these days, I found out. He’s in pretty good health, but he’s pretty much miserable, and it breaks my heart. It’s been a year since our family realized we couldn’t give him the care he needed. He’s been living in a nursing home ever since.

“Just put me in the grave,” he yells over and over again. Or, “Throw me on the floor, why don’t you?” He’s uncomfortable wherever he is – in his wheelchair, in his recliner, at the dinner table – and he shouts it. Of course he doesn’t care about a silly happy-birthday sign. Everything hurts.

With Pop Pop on the porch

There’s a lot of talk these days about longevity, about discovering the secret to a long life. Being there with my favorite 96-year-old, seeing him struggle and yank and bite (yes, bite), I couldn’t help but think that maybe the secret is to get out early. Why live longer, for this? I also wondered whether I had overstayed my welcome. He didn’t seem comforted by my company, at all. Was I making it harder? Perhaps it was too much.

But by the end of my visit, I had discovered some things. Pop Pop may not be interested in letters and photo albums and newspapers, the way he used to be, but he does like crossword puzzle hour (what he calls “Discussion Group”) before dinner. He also likes to go outside - even if he protests at first - and he likes to talk at night, after the aides have transferred him to bed and it’s finally quiet.

“My sweet honey doll,” he said one evening, as he drifted off to sleep. “Oh, my sweet honey doll…”

Life looks different for Pop Pop now. As his granddaughter, his friend and his advocate, I have to realize that, and stay as positive as I can. It was tough moving him to a nursing home facility a year ago, but I’m thankful he’s not alone. It’s my job now to listen hard, and try to find the little things that bring him joy and comfort. It’s a new routine, a new language almost. It may be hard to understand at first, but I have to adjust and continue appreciating every moment we have together. It truly is a blessing, being a grown-up grandchild. I’m almost 30, and I’m still his honey doll.

My aunt and uncle from Cleveland drove to see Pop Pop on Sunday. “He proudly showed us your amazing poster and said how much he appreciated your visit,” she wrote in an email afterwards.

Really? Well. I was kind of shocked, again. I guess not everything has changed.