I laughed and cried simultaneously when I read a recent Facebook post by my youngest son, Jake:
“Seen all kinds of love in the last couple days. Grandpa with late Alzheimer’s smiling when my grandma walks in the room, helping my aunt clean the cheese from cheese puffs off of my other grandpa’s fingers/shirt/entire body, and waking up to his dog humping my elbow.”
The back story: While my husband and I vacationed this summer, my sister-in-law took over the care of my father-in-law (FIL) at his own home in St. Louis. But she needed to leave before our scheduled return. So Jake — on break between summer and fall semesters at college — drove to St. Louis. He visited one set of grandparents on the southwest side of town, then traveled to the north side to stay with his other grandpa and drive him back to our home in Shawnee.
There are many ideas about what love is: Love is a feeling. Love is an action. Love is a duty. Love is a choice. Love is blind. Love is perceptive. Love is learned. Love is innate.
The first grandpa Jake mentioned — my dad — is about 10 years into Alzheimer’s. Mom cared for him at home well into late stages of the disease, but finally released him to a memory care facility. She still sees him every day — feeding him, talking to him, taking him outdoors or to music programs and other activities in their retirement community, but mostly just sitting with him.
It’s tough now to distinguish any sign of comprehension from him over anything or anybody. Does he really recognize her? Who knows.
Jake’s other grandpa — my FIL — is mentally sharp, but physically declining at age 97 and had recently broken out with shingles. His daughter left her own home in Florida to stay with him for the month of July. She cleaned his house. She washed his dishes, his sheets, his clothes, his body. She took him to his appointments. She administered his medications each morning and his pain pills when he cried out in the night. She shopped and cooked for him.
And she let him eat cheese puffs — his favorite snack, but a very messy treat.
Then there’s the dog. FIL loves his dog. Where FIL goes, the dog goes, too. So by default, FIL’s caregivers are also the dog’s caregivers.
And the dog has a few unpleasant habits, like the one Jake mentioned in his Facebook post.
So Jake observed some things about love: Love is deeper than dementia. Love is service. Love is an urge.
And he demonstrated even more: Love is insightful. Love is compassionate. Love steps up to cover a need. Jake played the piano for his grandma, sat with his grandpa on the veranda, and spent two days and nights caring for FIL and his dog.
Our 19-year old, our baby of the family, experienced a role change. Jake got to be The Caregiver, and love shone.
He wiped drool from a chin and other secretions from other body parts. He administered pills in spoonfuls of applesauce. Normally a sound sleeper, he discovered that the slightest cough, moan or sigh will wake you instantly when you’re the one responsible. He learned just how slowly the clock can move when you are aged and infirm.
He took FIL for a drive in the country and assisted him from the car into FIL’s favorite bar and grill for a Coke. Unfortunately it was more of a bar than a grill, and Jake was physically removed because he was under 21. FIL stared through the window with puppy dog eyes, not understanding why his grandson wasn’t coming inside to help him back out to the car.
More facets of love learned: pain and frustration when you can’t fix what’s wrong, and rage at those who hurt someone you care for.
Jake experienced firsthand how caregiving encompasses many forms of love, ebbing and flowing, changing and evolving with shifts in situations and roles.
Caregiving lessons learned: 1) Let family members share in the care, and they’ll also share in the love. 2) Biker dudes make great friends when you need to extract your grandpa from a bar.
And, by the way, Jake has resolved that if he ever has children, they will not be allowed to eat cheese puffs.