A Tale of Two Toddlers: On the Passing of my Grandfather

Halver Van Dame and Layla Casper

My Grandfather passed away yesterday and it brought to mind the last times we saw him in the early spring when we were visiting the States for a couple months.

My parents are empty-nesters, as all five children have married, moved out, and have kids of their own.  Much to my mom’s joy, they are all living within 20 minutes of each other, except for me who lives overseas.  A little over a year ago, their nest was refilled a bit, when they moved houses to accommodate my dad’s aging parents.  They found a house in a beautiful setting with a large back yard, which, most importantly, could allow for an in-law suite.  And so, my 96-year old grandmother who was in excellent health and had full mental capabilities moved in along with my 94-year old grandfather whose health was also decent, but who was suffering from dementia.  They were so happy with the arrangement, and proud of their two sons for making this work out for them.  My grandmother, though getting weaker, could care for my grandfather on a normal day.  But to be living with my parents gave them extra security should something happen to one of them.

Unfortunately, about two months after they moved in, my grandmother suffered a debilitating stroke which left her in the hospital and a nursing home for several months until she passed away on her 97th birthday.  She never regained her physical capabilities or her speech and eating functions.  This left my grandfather mainly under the care of my father.

About six months after my grandmother’s passing is when we arrived on the scene for a couple months.  We were able to observe daily life as my father now cared for his father, much the same way I care for my three-year old toddler.

The similarities were striking.  We would all eat dinner together, and much like I decided which food and how much went on my daughter’s plate, my father had to divvy out his father’s portions.  Sometimes my grandfather would reach to take more of one thing or another, but knowing his dietary and diabetic restrictions, my father would have to tell him no.  This reminded me of my limiting some of the less healthy things for my daughter.  I usually avoid talking about desserts or offering too many to my kids.  I personally love sweets, but they aren’t that good for me.  Why should I encourage my kids to regularly consume them?  It was the same with my grandfather.  Even though the freezer was filled with three different kinds of ice cream, both “toddlers,” were kept in the dark, for their own good.

Some of the more awkward parts of caring for a parent were also part of a normal day.  My grandfather is functional enough to go to the bathroom when he needs to or let my Dad know he needs help.  And yet, it is more a matter of routine now.  Before bed, my Dad will put my grandfather on the toilet and this is his time to go.  At night, he wears Depends, but unfortunately, these do not always do their job.  Many days when I was there, the sheets were stripped and washed for the next night.  My toddler has been potty trained for some time now, but she still has accidents, and I make it a point to tell her to get on the potty at times throughout the day.  She still wears diapers to bed.  She is basically able to take care of herself in this area, but needs some assistance.  The difference here is about 150 pounds.  She’s a lot easier to lift on and off than him.

My grandfather has a pretty simple routine during the day, not nearly involved as my toddler’s.  And yet, some of this routine involves playing Rummy.  After dinner, my mom, dad and grandfather often play a few hands of Rummy.  At times he forgets the rules or forgets what he is doing, but this is a game he played with my grandmother for years at every meal.  It is ingrained deep in his memory.  My toddler likes to play games, although hers are much simpler and more active.  One thing they do share in common here is the television.  While my grandfather sat in his living area of the house “watching” cartoons, my toddler would come into his room, climb up on the other recliner and watch right along with him.  In fact, my preschooler discovered her new favorite show while watching with him.

It’s hard to see my grandfather in this state.  He is a happy guy and his dementia has not made him mean.  We’re thankful for that.  He’s fairly easygoing.  But it is harder to watch all that my dad has to do for him.  It is a strange role reversal for my parents as my mom was the primary caregiver for their five children.  He takes the main responsibility for his dad.  This means he can’t be left alone.  Two days a week he goes to an adult daycare center.  He seems to enjoy this change of pace, and it allows my dad to play golf or run errands.  The other five days, dad is on 24 hours a day.  That’s not easy at retirement age.  It’s not easy to clean up a messy bed morning after morning.  It’s hard work lifting him on and off the toilet.  It’s constant responsibility for a 160 pound toddler.  It’s arranging for babysitters so they can go out on dates, or simply fulfill other responsibilities they have.

I never heard my dad complain.  This wasn’t what he expected when they moved in, as my grandmother was able to do much of this for him.  She was more so the one responsible.  But it is the reality of the situation, and he has accepted this task to care for his parent.  There are good things about Granddaddy not remembering things, as I’m sure it would be difficult to realize your own son was bathing you.  But there are hard things too as his life is kind of the same day after day and you wonder about the purpose in it.  And mentally, when you care for an aging parent, particularly with dementia, you worry about your own future and don’t wish to be in the same situation yourself.

When it was time for us to return to our home overseas, my grandfather was actually in a rehab center after spending a few days in the hospital for an infection.  We hadn’t said good-bye to him previously, so we made sure to stop by the rehab center on our way out of town.  He was sitting in a wheelchair as he had recently finished his therapy session.  I went in and said hi, reminded him who we were and told him we would be traveling again in a few days so we had come to say goodbye.  I thanked him for watching TV with the girls and told him about the favorite show they discovered with him.  In the meantime, the girls started getting distracted by the various “toys” in the room.  Their favorite was a pink ball.  As I got ready to tell them not to touch, the therapist said it was fine.  And so, before leaving, my two girls bounced the ball back and forth to my 95-year old “toddler” grandfather sitting in his wheelchair with a big smile on his face.  It was fun for all of them, and the best way to say good-bye.

With great-granddaughters, 'watching' cartoons

2 replies on “A Tale of Two Toddlers: On the Passing of my Grandfather”

Thank you for sharing, Julie. Our family can relate a little bit to what you have written. Your GrandDaddy was blessed with wonderful family who took such good care of him.


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