No Easy Answers

I was in social studies in 12th grade in 1975 and the class was discussing the nursing home scandal that was unfolding in New York City. Terrible details of elder abuse and neglect were emerging in the newspapers.

The discussion moved from the scandal to elder care as a societal value. Our teacher explained that in some cultures, for example, Native American, elders were more revered than in American society at large. In those cultures older folks stayed with the family as they aged and were cared for until they died. One of my classmates, declared, “I would never put my parents in a nursing home! How can you put them away like that?” Others chimed in with their agreement.

I raised my hand to respond, “It isn’t so simple. Sometimes older people,” and my voice unexpectedly broke. I took a deep breath and managed to say, “need more attention than you can give.” I couldn’t say more.

My grandfather, my father’s father, was staying with us at the time. Grandma had recently died. In those years he stayed with us for some extended periods – during the period of mourning, after cataract surgery and while awaiting placement at the Hebrew Home for the Aged, My brothers were away at college. When I made the comment in class I was thinking of the impact that Grandpa living with us had on the life of my parents and myself. Unfamiliar with our house, with compromised hearing and vision, it was difficult for him to manage.

While he was staying with us, when I came home from high school, I would ask him if he wanted to take a walk. He was always delighted to. He would put on his trench coat and fedora and we would set off to the shopping center. Grandpa was always careful to walk on the outside, closer to the curb. I didn’t understand why he did that, so I asked him. He explained that the man should always walk next to the street, the young lady should be closer to the buildings to be safer. Grandpa had very gentlemanly, old world ways.

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Grandma and Grandpa in happier times, on our living room couch in Canarsie. With his trademark fedora, trench coat draped over his arm. In those days you could see travelers to the gate. I believe they were off to Florida.

We would go to the stationary store where he would buy the Forward, the Yiddish language newspaper, and a cigar. We would walk back home. Grandpa didn’t feel a need to fill the silence. I’m not sure if his reserve related to his hearing deficit, or if it was just his personality, Grandma certainly ran the show when she was alive – she was smart, funny and opinionated. Maybe she just overshadowed him and he got used to it. I wish I had asked Grandpa more questions. We were surprised at how long and well he did after Grandma died.

Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised. After all he came to this country by himself at the age of 17. He learned five languages, he ran several businesses, married and had a family. He played cards and a mean game of Scrabble. Even though English wasn’t his first language, he beat all comers.

When Grandpa had cataract surgery and was recovering at our house, I gave him his eye drops. Both Grandpa and my father had what’s called benign essential tremor, involuntary shaking of the hands, so they couldn’t do it. My mother had a thing about eyes and wasn’t comfortable giving the drops. I did the best I could.

As part of his recovery from the surgery, Grandpa was told not to smoke his beloved cigars. I think this was to minimize coughing which might impact the healing of his eye. We still took our walks and he still kept a cigar in his shirt pocket. One day at dinner, Grandpa started to cough. My father was enraged, thinking Grandpa was still smoking. Dad reached across the table and ripped the cigar from Grandpa’s shirt pocket. “You know you aren’t supposed to be smoking these,” he roared.

He also ripped the pocket clear off the shirt.

In that moment I thought it was possible that Dad hated his own father. After the explosion, Dad apologized and things calmed down, though it wasn’t that long after that Grandpa went to stay with Aunt Diane.

Dad told us that he remembered little of his own childhood, but he also told us that when his family moved to a new apartment on Prospect Park West there was a bedroom for his sisters and one for his parents, but not for him. He slept on a couch. He made himself scarce, going to school, working various jobs and playing ball.

Aside from feeling neglected, Dad also said that when he had the opportunity to go to Harvard or Yale Law School, his parents wouldn’t lend him the money (he didn’t believe it was simply a matter of finances). They did provide funds for his older sister to go to medical school. There was layer upon layer of resentment that was never addressed, it just smoldered in my father.

For the years that Grandpa was able to be self-sufficient, he lived in Century Village Deerfield Beach in Florida and we made our annual visits. When that was no longer an option, he moved to the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale.

So while it would be optimal if as folks aged they could be cared for in the loving arms of their family, I don’t think it always plays out that way. The needs of the older person may be too great, the capacity of the family to provide the support and the relationships may not be healthy enough to make it work. It wouldn’t have in our family.

9 thoughts on “No Easy Answers

  1. Yes grandpa did live with us at various times. I will tell you of when I first met Daddy’s family. It was a family dinner and at some time between courses I asked grandpa what it was like iliving in Poland when he was a boy. Dead silence at the dinner table. Grandpa hadn’t said a word until then and not knowing how he rarely spoke. But then he spoke of his childhood, fishing and catching fish with his bare hands and details of his family having a “store” and he helped selling even to the Poles, etc. It was only when Dad took me home that he said no one asked about his fathers family because they were all killed, “shot to death,” by the Nazis. My father who was a great story teller could not have been more different. I learned to really love my father in law and never could get myself to ask again about his memories though Ialways wondered how and why Daddy was so ignored.

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  2. So well written and so engaging. Sometimes the questions are as important as the answers. It seems like your post raises many questions. Perhaps we will never have the opportunity we would like to find the answers. The witnesses mostly are gone and those left over seemingly don’t really know. In any case, the questions raised about your father’s upbringing are provocative. Perhaps they are also not all that unusual. thank you.

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  3. Another fascinating, introspective piece, Linda on the aging process and how it affects us all in different ways. Especially when it comes to relationships with elderly family members who have had the occasion to live in the same home. You were fortunate to be able to share time this way with both sets of grandparents.
    Obviously your classmates did not have experience in caregiving family members.
    It was very different in those days with regards to the expectation that grandparents would move in with various family members. Because as you mentioned, until they were regulated, many nursing homes were dreadful places.
    It’s funny you mentioned your mom being reluctant to put drops in your grandfather’s eyes. Simma told me more than once that she had a dreaded fear of putting anything in her eyes.

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  4. By standing closest to the street, and having you closest to the building, is a protection the man provided to the woman from the garbage which would be thrown from the rooftops onto the streets…a long time ago. This was taught to me by a Social Studies teacher in Junior High School.

    I similar to Mom, also erred in attempting to ask Grandpa about life in Poland. Again, in JHS, circa 1970, we had an assignment to interview a grandparent about the differences between life in NYC and the old world. What a revealing assignment– if you grew up in NYC- the teacher could correctly assume that each student would have a grandparent not born in the US. And when I went to fulfill the assignment by calling Grandpa, Dad prohibited me from doing the same. I explained this to the teacher who then had me do some research on Puerto Rico.

    Not the best memories….but your writing – as always- is great.

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    1. Mark, thanks for reminding me of that – I think I learned something about that (the tossing of garbage out the window) – but I had forgotten. It was also interesting to learn of your JHS assignment and Dad’s reaction. I wonder if Grandpa would have wanted to tell his story or if he wanted/needed that protection? We will never know. It is sad.

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  5. I had to wait a couple of days before responding to this blog because it really hits hard to my core of how I have run my life.

    I was a young and impressionable kid, not sure what age when I asked and was told about the slaughter our grandfather’s family by the nazis and asked why? I was told because there was no God, otherwise if there was one this would never of happened. I actually think it was grandpa or someone else speaking on his behalf that said this. It shaped my vision and perception of life that still resonates with me today. I also remember that grandpa upon finding out what happened to his family never went back to temple unless it was for a bar mitzvah or wedding, he was so destroyed by what had happened. This too resonates with me today as well.

    History tells us in situations such as what happened during WWII people some times gain strength, a stronger resolve, a deeper faith, others lose faith. Regrettably grandpa lost faith.

    It would have been beneficial to us and him if he would have opened up about his feelings. It is no different today with those who have returned from the Viet Nam or Afghan/Irag wars who hold feelings and thoughts inside themselves remaining silent on what they saw and experienced during the involvement in the war(s).

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    1. Steve, Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I, too, recall being told about Grandpa’s loss of faith – and it is totally understandable. I have found myself wondering what Grandpa was like before receiving that letter about his family’s fate. And, I wonder if talking about it might have been beneficial to him. Things we will never know.

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      1. I think we should all talk about this part of the family more. I learned more about Grandpa’s parents from this story and set of comments than I had in the past 30 years.

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