Elder care used to be about making sure your aging loved one had the appropriate mobility and home health aids and selecting the best nursing home when the time came. These days, however, with people leading longer, healthier and more active lives, caring for an aging relative has become a whole new ball game.
To those who haven’t experienced this for themselves, when I say that I’m going to upstate New York to help my mom take care of my 91-year-old grandfather, it conjures up images of, say, spoon-feeding porridge to a bedridden nonagenarian.
In this case, it’s not really like that.
Grandpa works out three days a week at the local health center, where he swims laps in the pool and uses the weight machines. He works part-time selling petroleum products and has been a member of a yacht club for nearly 70 years. He’s part of a weekly bridge club, serves as an elder in his church, and regularly socializes with friends, including his identical twin brother.
It’s kind of a riot when he’s together with his brother. They banter back and forth and stories of their youthful shenanigans tend to come out, like the time they were caught waterskiing on the canal that runs through Seneca Falls (a definite no-no). It’s like listening to a real-life Waldorf and Statler from “The Muppet Show.”
Medical appointments are certainly involved when we visit Grandpa, but they’re far from the only thing. To help facilitate Grandpa’s sales work, my uncle got him a computer. This is the first time in Grandpa’s life that he has ever had a computer, and he is diligently learning how to type using the ubiquitous Mavis Beacon typing software, an endeavor Mom and I are helping him to troubleshoot. He initially had a tendency to position his fingers one off from the home keys, which led to numerous ants tumbling off the log in one of those typing games until he figured out what was wrong. Now he’s plugging along at a steady pace with far fewer errors.
One of the tasks Mom has delegated to me is to go through Grandpa’s inbox and weed out any spam that may have snuck past the filters. I also go through his cell phone and delete text messages he’s received (Grandpa doesn’t text, but people sometimes send him messages) and old voicemails. He’s always been a stickler for an empty postal mailbox and an empty answering machine, and that mindset has transferred to their technological counterparts.
The empty email inbox, unfortunately, is nigh impossible. Just because you’ve responded to an email doesn’t mean you’ll never need to look at it again – you might need it for reference in the future. As such, we’re encouraging him to think of his inbox as a filing cabinet rather than the electronic equivalent of a postal mailbox. He’s expressed concern about running out of space, but we’ve assured him that he has plenty of room to store old emails and still receive new ones.
I also assist in matters of editing, research, and archiving. As the longest-tenured member of his yacht club and a former commodore (or a former club president, in non-nautical terms), Grandpa is often called upon to contribute articles to the club newsletter or historical information for special events. His memory is sharp as a tack, but spelling, punctuation and grammar have never been his strong suit. We’ve worked out a system where he jots down his thoughts with pen and paper and I type them up, asking him for clarification and additional information as needed.
Last year, Grandpa and his twin gave a talk during his church’s coffee hour on the history of the family farm, which was in the family for 150 years. For this occasion, Mom put together an extensive PowerPoint presentation featuring old photographs and historical timelines, with some technical assistance and grammatical input from me. I also helped assemble the notes for what Grandpa and his twin were going to say, and during the talk itself, I took on the crucial task of manning the controls, advancing the presentation from one slide to the next.
Modern-day elder care can be a far cry from stopping by the nursing home on a Saturday afternoon to play board games with your loved one and talk to the doctor about their current medications. Though medical advocacy is still an important part of it, it’s also about providing the assistance they need to continue living a full and independent life for as long as possible.
And that assistance can take many forms. As I’m sitting on the couch in my aunt and uncle’s cottage and writing this column, my view of the lake is regularly interrupted by Grandpa and his twin zipping along in a John Deere Gator. Grandpa is now backing up, and Mom is spotting him. He and his brother are about to drive up from the cottage to where Grandpa has parked his SUV so they can unload the petroleum products he’s ordered for his customers, and Mom is following on foot to give them a hand.
– Teresa Santoski
Originally published June 2, 2016