Alzheimers homes don't smell very good all the time. The conversation isn't always quick-witted (although sometimes it will surprise you). And they can be both wrenchingly lonely and quietly encouraging at the same time. These are all things I thought about as I sat on my grandpa's bed on Saturday, filing his nails and making him eat his sweet potatoes.
My mom's father Eugene is 92 years old and, according to her, "a 7.5 out of 8" on the dementia scale. Generally my mother goes to visit and take care of him alone, which I hate, but she goes cheerfully, which I admire. This weekend, the three of us trekked over together. Part of me thinks I was going to say goodbye to him, and a smaller part is a little hopeful that I was. He just seems to be outliving himself, and it's a difficult thing to watch.
In April, before my sister left to begin her life as a Faux-rean (that sounded better in my head than it looks written down), we went over to spend Grandpa Gene's birthday with him. It was an event that was exceptional only in its unexceptionalism. We sat at a dining room table. We chatted about our day. We laughed and wished birthday wishes for his upcoming year. It was as if we had been catapulted back in time, years ago, when his wife and my grandma was still alive and we sat conversing idly at a table about nothing and everything at once. You know, like families do.
Our food arrived: chicken breasts for us and unrecognizably-chopped-up chicken breast for him. "You've gotta be kidding me," he muttered to himself as he poked at the plate listlessly.
I have to say the following things about my grandpa: he can be one of the most crotchety, cranky people I have ever met, and he is universally popular no matter where he goes. Grace, the sweet Mexican girl who works at the home, came in repeatedly to make sure my grandpa had whatever he wanted. Rather than eating dinner, he drank three hot chocolates in a row, with whipped cream, brought to him by the doting waitress who wanted to make sure everything was perfect for him.
"He's a very special man," Grace grinned affectionately. "I want to be sure to show him extra care. I don't have parents, and I don't know what it's like, to have to take care of someone older."
My dad, as he does at any mention of a life story, tuned in. "Oh no. What happened?"
"I have five kids of my own now," she smiled bittersweetly, "and I wish they could have known my parents." She left to get more hot chocolate as the three of us sat, a little stunned, feeling the need to observe some silence for her decades-old loss.
Yes, it is difficult to watch someone you love grow old and lose track of the person you once knew. But Grace reminded us that even those things, when viewed correctly, are blessings: my mom still has a dad. We have had a grandfather who, 20 years ago, shaved his mustache so he could kiss us goodnight, and who taught us how to dance and drink McDonalds coffee and play Pavarotti on his record player and take long walks in his apple orchards and cook an egg in the microwave and love your spouse immensely. I'm grateful for everything his years have contained, and especially grateful for the fact that he has gotten so many of them.