10 Lessons My Kids Learned By Having Papa Live With Us
By Jesse Neve
Age 52 is too young to find out you have Alzheimer’s. But, my dad did. When he moved in with us, he was 55 and our kids were 1, 3, 5 and 7. The journey over the next twelve years was harsh. But, now I am able to identify the benefits of raising our kids in a Sandwich Family—a family where three generations live and thrive together. The kids were growing up as Papa was “growing down.”
Patience: When Papa first moved in, his signature “symptom” was asking the same questions over and over again. He could ask the same question thirty times a day. It was frustrating to have to repeatedly explain things. The older kids understood, and would politely answer his repeated questions. Ben, the baby, had just recently learned to talk himself. He would say, “PAPA! I TOLD you that ALREADY!” So, I each time, I would take him aside and explain that Papa couldn’t remember things the way that he could. It only took Ben a little while before he started to say things like, “Oh, you must have forgotten. I’ll tell you again. . .”
We help our family: By being immersed in the reality of Papa’s disability and need, the kids were able to see firsthand that helping one another is a top priority for us. One Saturday morning, we were all bustling around getting ready for a busy day. Papa called me downstairs to help him “fix” his T.V. There was nothing wrong with it. He had just forgotten which button to press in order to get it to turn on. The same thing happened fifteen minutes later as we were trying to get ourselves out to the car. Nine-year-old Jon piped up, “Yeah, I helped him three times with that already this morning.” I was awestruck. Here, this little guy was helping Papa without my even being aware of it. He just naturally did it without complaining and without taking issue.
Honor your (Grand)father: It was always my determination that we were going to help Papa, but that we were also going to do every “normal” thing that families with young children do. We were going to go to soccer games and have birthday parties and go on vacations. We were just going to have to be creative. Fourteen-year-old Sarah had a sleepover birthday party, where a bunch of girls were watching a movie late at night. I knew that Papa wasn’t “settled” yet, so I was lurking around the house keeping tabs on things. That night, Papa interrupted the girls multiple times asking who they were and why they were at his house. Sarah very kindly responded each time, “Papa, you’re my Grandpa, and I’m just having a birthday party. We’re watching a movie.” And he was satisfied with that answer and went back to his room for a few minutes. At one point I heard Sarah explaining the situation to her friends, very matter-of-factly. “He has memory loss and we just have to keep reminding him. But, he’s okay.”
Perseverance: As time went on, we needed to have our cupboards and refrigerator locked. There wasn’t any real danger, it was just that Papa would forget that he had just eaten, and then proceed to devour an entire loaf of bread or pan of brownies or gallon of milk. We knew we wouldn’t have to live “locked up” forever, but for about a year, we were all struggling a bit with our own kitchen. At one point, 13-year-old Daniel went into the kitchen, and I heard him sigh and then leave the kitchen. I asked him what the problem was. He said, “oh, I was going to get a snack, but it’s just so much work, I’ll just wait until I’m hungrier.“ But, they all understood why. When Papa would question why everything was locked up, they would tell him, “It’s so we don’t eat too many snacks.”
Speak clearly and explain things carefully: Ben learned that Papa would understand him better if he spoke slowly and clearly with each word enunciated distinctly. Papa and Ben would have long conversations about cars and monkeys and vastly interesting boy-stuff. But, Ben learned early on that he needed to speak very clearly in order for Papa to understand.
Live in the present: Papa loved a good story. He would pay attention and laugh and even if he didn’t fully understand it, he would get the tone of the story and laugh along with us. But, the story was now. There was no recalling a story from earlier today. But, there was also no feeling bad about something that happened yesterday. It was all about living in the now. Now is all that matters.
Don’t hold grudges: There were times when Papa would get frustrated or angry. Once he was mad at a family friend who was visiting, and he locked her out of the back door of the house. She walked around front and rang the doorbell. He welcomed her in graciously on the other side of the house. There isn’t a lot of positive to find in this horrible disease, but if we could all learn to forget negative emotions as fast as Papa could, we would all be better off.
It’s not his fault: Papa ended up not being able to do a lot of things. We cut his food up for him, and helped him with personal grooming. The kids would help him zip his coat and put his hat on. They all understood that it’s not his fault. He would much rather live on his own and take care of things himself, but he couldn’t help it. A real Golden Rule lesson: Do unto others.
They’re just regular people: Often a child (or even an adult) will feel awkward around a person who is disabled either physically or mentally. They just don’t know what to say or how to act. Our kids know that these people are just regular people. Ben and his middle school class went to the local nursing home to visit with the residents. Ben and his friend were assigned to be friends with a man who had memory loss. When the man started “talking” to the boys in a garbled language, Ben’s friend was wide-eyed and didn’t know what to do. Ben jumped right in and “conversed” with the man, saying, “Really? Oh, tell me more.” Ben and the older gentleman weren’t speaking the same language, but they were communicating in a language of friendship and love.
Above all, show kindness: Papa demonstrated this to us WELL into his battle with Alzheimer’s. We were outside working on organizing the garage. Papa was “helping,” but he didn’t really understand what we were trying to accomplish. He wandered into the house for a while, and I took the opportunity of his absence to race around the garage and “fix” some of the things that he had organized. He was gone a long time. When he came back out, he was walking very carefully holding a glass of water. He said, “You’ve been working a long time out here. You need a cool drink. I would have come back sooner, but I had to figure out the ice machine on the fridge.” Indeed. Here he was, struggling day to day just to live normally, and still showing such kindness and love to me and to us.
Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease, but our family going through it together has made us stronger as a family, and the children have become better people because of it. When I asked 15-year-old Daniel what he learned from having Papa live with us, he said, “Never get tired of doing little things for others. Sometimes those little things occupy the biggest part of their hearts.”
Jesse Neve is a freelance writer, wife and mother of four. Her life goal is to bring a little smile to everyone she passes.