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.
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.