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In retirement, my grandfather, Pop Pop, traveled the world with my grandmother. They went to Greece, China, Peru, Portugal — you name it. They’d spent years running a small business and raising three kids, so retirement was their chance to get away and see it all.
And for many years, they did, thanks to good health and a smart savings plan. But little did they know that life after 65 would last so long — an absolute blessing, but also a real challenge.
By the time Pop Pop reached 90, his travel companion (overseas and in life) had developed Alzheimer’s disease, and his mobility limitations were increasing. Stairs that had once been easy to climb started taking time and effort. Even the simplest outings — to the barbershop or to the diner for an omelet — became a struggle. Though he never lamented it, at least to me, his days of traveling for pleasure were in the past.
So my family decided to do something. We started what we called the Flat Pop Pop Project (like the elementary-school hit Flat Stanley). Basically, we’d take a tiny, two-dimensional version of him with us on all of our travels.
Suddenly, Pop Pop was everywhere. He strolled the sidewalks of Vienna. He rode the waves in Hawaii. He sailed to a fairytale castle in Slovenia. He shopped for Turkish rugs in Istanbul. He met fellow business owners and travelers of all ages, and crossed paths with street performers, spice vendors and baristas from Budapest to Brooklyn.
We compiled pictures of the adventures into books that Pop Pop kept alongside albums of his real-life journeys. It tickled him to flip through the pages and share them with friends and other family members.
Of course, we took more serious measures to ensure that Pop Pop could stay safe, comfortable and as active as he liked. We moved his bedroom to the first floor, so the stairs were no longer an issue. We made in-home modifications to the downstairs bathroom, and added a power-lift recliner to the living room. We hired a lovely part-time caregiver, Michele, who not only helped with his morning routine, but also drove and accompanied him to the barbershop, the diner and the like. (And by “we,” I really mean my rock star aunt and uncle, who moved in so someone would be there 24/7.)
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But the Flat Pop Pop Project was one of those silly, soft ideas that, I think, made a world of difference to my grandfather and to all of us. It’s natural to feel helpless as you watch loved ones adapt their lives to fit new circumstances. Oftentimes, as my stepmom — a caregiver for her mother — put it recently, it seems like our worlds get smaller as we age. You might ask, What can I do? How can I make it better?
There are no right or wrong answers, but for us, this project brought unexpected joy. It was a way to expand Pop Pop's world beyond his door, and a way for us to come together as a family and show him how his legacy would always live on.
Photo: Laura Hahn
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