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Why I Insist On Weekly Visits With My 97-Year-Old Grandmother

12/11/2015 04:45 EST | Updated 12/11/2016 05:12 EST
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One of the priorities with my school-aged children, above and beyond school work, lessons, playdates etc, is a weekly visit to see my grandmother, age 97, at her retirement home.

These weekly visits are not met with the same zest and anticipation as let's say, announcing we are going for ice cream or to a movie. In fact, often my children can become resistant to the visit citing various reasons why today isn't a good day: they didn't get enough sleep the night before or they would rather play with a friend. And sometimes, they just say it straight: they would prefer to do nothing rather than go to the retirement home to visit her!

But this is where my credo of no negotiation comes in with my kids.

I explain that visits to Bubbie (Jewish term for grandmother) are a part of our lives and a part of our week.

I sometimes throw in, "And I fully expect your grandchildren to come visit me in my retirement home when I am 97," which will often put an end to any further pleas.

My grandmother is a remarkable woman, and quite truthfully, just making it to 97 is reason enough to be called remarkable. She was an avid golfer in her time, and even recently had a swing that would make many envious. She is the quintessential matriarch. Widowed at 63, she is the fiercely proud head of three children, their spouses, 8 grandchildren, their spouses and five great grandchildren.

She valued her independence greatly and was very proud of deciding to purchase a new car in her 90's. Having to give up her license several years later due to short term memory loss and some physical decline prompted the move into her retirement home which has been a positive transition in many ways.

My children have very scant memories of Bubbie when she was living on her own independently baking her famous tins of mandlebread, or glued to the television watching her beloved Blue Jays. They don't remember her coming over regularly to drop off a bag of diapers or a toy. She would find any reason to come by, she simply wanted to bask in the amazement of watching them grow inch by inch.

But now the tables are turned, and we go to visit her. And each visit, usually goes like this:

Bubbie: Ohhhhhh, hello! (She lights up sitting in the lobby when they enter the room, truly as if they are two little Hollywood stars walking the red carpet.)

Bubbie: How are you? What did you do today?

William: I went to school. It was fine.

Bubbie: Aren't you cold? You're not even wearing a jacket

William: No. I am okay.

Bubbie: Can you get your hair out of your eyes? I can't see your face.

William: (swipes hair out of his face reluctantly)

Me: How are you Bubbie? What did you do today?

Bubbie: Me? I'm fine! You think I can remember what I did today?

Bubbie: William, what did you do today?

William: I went to school.

Bubbie: Oh, Aren't you cold? How come you're not wearing a jacket?

William: It's not cold.

Bubbie: Of course it's cold!!! Raynia, he's going to be sick. Get him a jacket.

Me: Okay. I will look for one in the car

Bubbie: William, what did you do today?

And on it goes. And so when my children tell me they would rather do anything but go visit my grandmother, I do my best to imagine myself through their lens. And I get it. It feels strange for them to be asked the same questions over and over by someone who looks like they should know all the answers.

As a social worker who has focused my career in working with aging families, speaking to those with memory loss, cognitive impairment, or dementia has become second nature. But it wasn't always like that. I can still recall one of the first days I started my new job as a social worker in acute care and met with a patient who was well into her nineties. As part of my assessment, I had asked her where she lived and who she lived with. She looked at me and with no hesitation answered, "With my mother, of course." I had no idea what to make of it until I understood that dementia was causing her response.

Instead of having children feel embarrassed or ashamed that an adult is forgetting things, an explanation can be relatively straightforward:

"Bubbie keeps asking you the same question because her brain has stopped being able to hold information that is recent, such as what you did today or what she might be thinking at a particular moment. She loves you very much and just being with her makes her feel very happy."

Another helpful strategy has been finding connections between my children and her that focus on her strengths or what she has capacity for, such as her long term memory. Once we are able to move past the repetitive questions and comments, there are always, always, lovely tender moments between my children and her.

I can't tell you that my children will be racing to the car to see who gets there first for our weekly visit this weekend. But I can tell you that the two of them and my grandmother will have great big smiles as they sit around the table in the dining room eating Jello. And even bigger smiles when she offers them another one.

About the author: Raynia is a social worker who has spent most of her career working in acute care hospitals with aging patients and their families. You can find out more by visiting her website.

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