Taking Care of Elderly Parents – Grandpa’s Stories

Everyone laughs when they hear Grandpa’s stories. I’m not sure why because, generally, the stories we tell are not meant to be funny. Mostly, they’re about the struggles we’ve encountered since taking my 89-year-old father out of a nursing home in October of 2009 to care for him ourselves.

After talking about our new responsibilities (actually, to anyone who will listen), most people agree that if you’re able to take care of your elderly parents, it’s the right thing to do. After all, many adult children over the age of fifty will have to care for an elderly parent now or sometime in the near future.That’s why Grandpa’s stories strike a cord. They give hope to others who are going through similar situations or become poignant reminders for those who have already done their duty.

And even if someone hasn’t been there, they’re rootin’ for us all the same. If one family can keep their elderly father from wasting his golden years drooling all over his wheelchair in a drugged induced stupor, some how, some way, they might be able to keep it from happening to them, too.

Let’s face it, growing old isn’t fun. The “golden” years eventually give way to the “not so golden” years, when we become totally dependent upon others to meet our most basic needs. Seniors who have lived independently, not wanting to burden their families, suddenly find themselves at the mercy of institutions to keep them happy and healthy. However, after just a few days in the nursing home, mom, dad, grandma or grandpa, come to realize that nobody can care for them like their own family.

Daily, a steady stream of overworked and underpaid staff can be seen filing through the nursing home doors. These are the ones to whom we entrust the care of the least among us – our precious parents and grandparents. Sadly for many families, the realization that they could be or should be part of the solution for this great social injustice never dawns on them.

I am thankful for the dedicated CNA’s and nursing home staff who, above insurmountable odds, keep giving from their hearts. They have one of the hardest jobs in society. However, they can never truly replace a family who takes responsibility for the care and well being of their own.

Some like ourselves, have been given the opportunity to follow a different path, and although it seems filled with overwhelming obstacles at times, it is also a  path to tremendous blessing. The sooner individual families realize what a privilege it is to be involved in the aging process, the sooner they will find grace for the journey.

This is the story of one family’s triumph over the “me” generation. Grandpa’s stories give voice to all the families who live selflessly day in and day out, those silent heroes who care for their elderly parents without notoriety or payment. Why do they do it? For love.

Keeping Life (Relatively) Predictable

Over the months, we have acquired many new skills we never possessed before mostly through trial and error. The routines we have adopted as a family have made the difference between our household being chaotic or running smoothly. Our daily schedule not only revolves around Grandpa’s needs and energy level, but my older son and daughter’s as well. They are the ones who usually get Dad up in the morning and put him to bed at night, so everyone has to be in agreement and try to keep to the schedule as much as possible. Seniors thrive on routine and so do caregivers.

Even though schedules are important, it is also important to be flexible and enjoy one another, too. If everyone is running late, try to not rush your parent just to stay on schedule. Grandpa loves social interaction more toward evening, and he gets just as excited about eating dessert or watching a movie as a child would. He doesn’t want to miss out on anything, and it’s important for him to know that we enjoy having him around and are willing to bend the rules once in awhile just to have some family fun.

Grandpa loves when I stop in his room to say goodnight. Sometimes we pray together or sing a hymn. He often tells me what he wants to accomplish on his book the next day. Bringing closure to the day, and saying I love you, makes him feel safe and secure, and that’s what it’s all about.

When we first started taking care of Grandpa, my older daughter was a little more exacting about bed time. We all were all pretty much in shell shock and became fatigued easily at that time. Imagine going from your flexible routine as a family with older children (11 and up), to having a newborn 160 pound baby in the house. We were pretty exhausted and just needed Grandpa to stick to the schedule.

If there is one thing I’ve learned over the last three years, we don’t have to do it like the nursing home does it. We can be flexible – within reason. You just have to be careful. If you give Grandpa and inch, he’ll take a mile – and then some!

Like My Mother Before Me

There are about five weeks of summer left, and I’m doing all I can to make it last. After a long string of hot days, I’m spending mornings up in the garden again, sipping coffee and reading my Bible under the shade of a walnut tree that’s next to my husband’s Cucumber Haus.” The roof, constructed of nylon netting, is now covered with curly tendrils fingering their way skyward, while the creeping vines around the base spill over into the path.

When I step inside the wooden frame, I am surrounded by a canopy of fuzzy green leaves and delicate yellow flowers. The air is cool and delicious, and I feel like a child again, exploring a secret garden. I love picking the prickly cucumbers and listening to the bees buzz from blossom to blossom.

The “Cucumber Haus” has become a spiritual dwelling place, a temporary tabernacle. But its glory is short-lived. Come fall, the frost will strike with a vengeance, shriveling the life-giving vines to the ground. Still, the memory of this year’s harvest will be permanently fixed upon my heart.

Years ago, I began making pickles out of necessity because I married an over-zealous vegetable gardener. I didn’t learn the art of canning from my mother, however. Even though she loved to garden (she planted a salad garden every year), she was overly cautious about germs, and afraid of botulism. So it’s no surprise that she asked a woman at a local grocery store how to make pickles. Now mind you, my mother has been with the Lord for 19 years. I didn’t know anything about this conversation until a couple weeks ago, after I had made my first batch of pickles and posted about it on my blog.

I received an email from a home school mom related to my husband’s sister through marriage. She wondered if I was the same Jill Novak that was married to Bobby Novak (that’s what Robert’s family calls him). After I let her know that, yes, indeed, I was “Bobby’s wife,” she wrote back saying, “I was reading your blog and I knew that you were the Jill I know. The Lord used your mom to change our family’s life. She witnessed to my mom in the produce section of the Eagle grocery store in Mundelein in 1979. She asked about making pickles. I remember what a prayer warrior your mom was! As a result of that my mother accepted Christ, and through a series of events, my husband and I did also. Your mom used to say we were “shoe-string” relatives! We have been homeschooling since 1989, and have been blessed with 8 kids ranging from 25 to 6.”

When I close my eyes, I can just imagine my gregarious mother striking up a conversation about making pickles with a total stranger in the grocery store. I can hear the woman assuring her that there is really nothing to worry about if you follow the simple instructions. I can see my mother’s face aglow with the thought of making her own pickles, and before you know it, she is sharing her faith about a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. She makes Him so appealing, so appetizing, that this woman accepts Him as her Savior right then and there in the produce isle. The two women exchange recipes that day – one for Kosher Dills and the other for Eternal Life.

I’ll never know how many people my mother led to the Lord in her lifetime through normal, everyday conversations about things like making pickles. She didn’t go out of her way to evangelize the world; she just bloomed where she was planted. People tend to laugh at me, too, because I have a way of telling my life story and sharing my faith with total strangers (especially at garage sales). That’s why hearing this story about my mother, 27 years after the fact, moved me to tears. The older I get, the more I miss her, and after all these years, the Lord confirmed something I already suspected – I truly am my mother’s daughter.

Well, this is the fourth time that I’m harvesting cucumbers this season. As I pick, slice, and can pickles, I’m passing down recipes to my own children: the joy of growing a garden, the sweet and spicy smell of pickles simmering on the stove, and the appetizing aroma of a relationship with the Living God, the recipe for Eternal Life. The memories I make now will be permanently fixed upon their hearts, and I will be remembered, like my mother before me, as a woman who nurtured her children’s souls, and reaped an abundant harvest – a winsome evangelism at best!


Apple Blossom Time

An apple tree bloomed near the hedgerow last week. “Mom, you have to go up and see the apple tree!” Elizabeth exclaimed.  “It’s all full of blossoms.” This same tree didn’t produce apples last year (a late frost nipped the life out of it), but this year the dark pink buds grew pale and slowly opened into paper-thin petals of white. As their light, sweet scent filled the air, I became spellbound. Sitting under the white and green branches, I pondered the short life of apple blossoms, only to realize that I cannot fully comprehend their fleeting beauty or the hand of the One who created such an exquisite tree. Some thoughts are too big for me.

If it remains cool and the blossoms linger, I will take my children to visit our apple tree friend often, to sit under its fragrant bower and contemplate the wonder of spring. We will memorize its splendor and revel in the sight and smell of hundreds of tender apple blossoms lifted to the sky. We will celebrate with cups of apple cinnamon spice tea and old-fashioned sour cream apple cake – our humble offering for the intrinsic loveliness we find there. We will read After Apple-Picking by Robert Frost and laugh at the poet’s ability to weave a yarn about two-pointed ladders, aching feet, and restless sleep. We’ll sigh because we know our words could never compare with his. Still, we will try to capture the memory of apple blossom time in our own verse.

And when at last the paper-thin petals lie scattered upon the ground, we will gratefully remember the fellowship we shared with the tree and each other at the meadow’s edge. A place where words bloom like delicate pink buds – full of promise, heady and fragrant, reminding us that apple blossom time is not a mere dream, but comes only once, for a short time…in the spring.

Gifts From the Garden – Part Two

I couldn’t bring myself to write about the end of the gardening season this year. How could I say goodbye? Who can find words to express the way you feel when you are separated from someone – or something – you’ve held so dear, even for just a season? It was hard to bring closure to all the experiences I had, nurturing seedlings to maturity to reaping a harvest-full of memories with my husband and children.

Harriette Jacobs from South of the Gnat Line asked me if I “winter garden.” I chuckled at the thought. I would if I could, but frigid Illinois winters prevent us from planting cold weather crops. Even though our imaginations remain alive   with dreams and plans for next year’s garden, the ground must rest.

This year, most of the vegetables were harvested long before the frost came. Due to too much rain in August, the tomato plants shriveled and turned brown by September, a good month before the chilling temperatures arrived. Unlike most years, when my fingers – numb with cold – fumble under broad green leaves for the last home-grown tomatoes, the children and I picked the vines clean in 70-degree weather with the sun beating down upon our backs.

Finally, October 12th, dawned. A surprise blizzard barreled down on us from the North, mocking our attempts to keep the garden permanently fixed in our affections. I donned a pair of gloves, boots, and my warm winter parka. In-between squalls I sloshed up to the garden to take pictures of the remaining snow-covered vegetables. Anna joined me, and as we walked the garden path, we recited the opening line from James Whitcomb Riley’s poem, “When the Frost is on the Punkin’.” The weather radio forecasted a hard frost that night and sure enough, by the next morning, Jack Frost had stole ruthlessly across the fields, scaling the garden fence, icy sword in hand to slay my heart.

I knew this day would come, and even though I made a conscious effort to spend more time up in the garden than I did last year, I still couldn’t believe the growing season was over. Gone were all the joy-filled mornings of sitting under the young walnut tree, watching the American gold finches flit from one sunflower to another. Gone was the hallowed spot of earth next to the bean trellises, where from my chair I surveyed my garden with delight. Sitting there, shaded from the hot sun with my Bible, journal and cup of coffee, I listened intently to the words and phrases that God brought to mind. Pictures and analogies formed, causing my heart to understand the truths that He was teaching me – lessons that could only be learned from observing young pole beans inch their way to the sky or heavy cucumbers  hang from thin tender vines. The time spent walking the garden paths brought deep contentment as I drank in the heavenly fragrance of milkweed in July and the spicy odor of tomato perfume in August. And here it was December…and no words came.

As much as I like to be prepared, I ran out of time to put together a present for our dear neighbor, Mrs. Kraft. Sarah, as she likes to be called, is 90 and there isn’t much she needs or wants any more and there isn’t much you can surprise her with unless you give her a one-of-a-kind homemade gift. Over the last few years I have given her a lot of nature-related gifts because the land we live on belongs to her.

One year, we gave her a DVD filled with nature photography and drawings that we had captured of specimens that she and her family just take for granted. Another year I gave her a series of watercolors, painted from wildflowers that grow on her two hundred acre farm. Another year I gave her a book full of journal entries recounting the stories and comments she had said to us over the year’s time. This year I found myself wondering what kind of gift would really bless her – something that I hadn’t done before.

I looked at my canned goods shelf. I had already given her several different jars of pickles at harvest time. And then I thought about my garden journal. She hadn’t heard these stories yet. I got my binder out and thumbed through the entries. This would make a wonderful gift along with a jar of crabapple sauce from her favorite little crabapple tree. There was one more thing. Our pet goose Peep-Peep (also one of Sarah’s favorites)just started laying again. We had a large white egg we could give her. I carefully wrapped it inside a vintage Christmas hankie with red embroidered poinsettias that my sister had sent from Maine.

When Sarah opened her presents she was so thrilled. She thanked me over and over again for the “priceless” gifts. I knew once again that we had given her a gift of gratitude from our hearts to hers, and that’s when the words came – the story of how my garden journal found its way to Sarah’s hands on Christmas Day. It was the perfect ending to a joy-filled gardening season…and “priceless!”

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