My father, mother and stepmother sat me down for a number of important conversations throughout my childhood.
We covered the birds and the bees, why I shouldn’t steal or cut my sister’s phone cord, how to get out of dangerous situations, how to spot a creep… but they never told me how to care for them as they die. They’ve never felt like they needed to.
By the time I was 18, I had already watched and helped them care for and bury two grandmothers, two great uncles and a great aunt. I never remember them facilitating the same type of “sit-down” to clarify why our visits were more frequent or what they expected of me.
Most of the time they kept things light.
On a visit to my Great Aunt Shirley’s when I was about 13, my Mom gave me one piece of advice before we walked in, “don’t hold back when you play her in Scrabble,” (I was already an accomplished player) the advice didn’t matter, Shirley whooped my butt anyway. The point my Mom made was, “yes, she’s coughing up a lung, but don’t let that stop you from putting down ‘parabola’ instead of a preposition.” She didn’t want to be treated any differently at the end of life, and I should know not to test her with insincere naïveté.
As I turn to consider my last set of living grandparents as a 25-year-old man with three parents approaching their mid-sixties, I question whether I feel prepared enough to offer them the same level of no-nonsense care they’ve been dolling out for years.
Why didn’t we have the talk?
I’m not a nurse like two of my sisters, nor do I expect them to bare the burden of caregiving responsibilities on their own. I’m pretty sure my folks didn’t neglect to fill me in for any malicious reason. They also never tried to tell me how to pick my friends. Taking care of a family member is a learned, personal and wavering dynamic. My parents didn’t stop to fill me in because they were figuring it out for themselves again and again each time on their own.
The ABCs of caring for an aging parent are not clear-cut. Mine gifted me with lessons on caregiving by including me in their daily and weekly house calls before I fully understood the significance of our visits.
I was talking with a woman running a caregiving support group a couple months ago and I asked her why she does this work.
She said, “In a selfish way, I want to model to my son how I want to be treated when I get old and gray.”
I was struck by her bluntness but simultaneously touched because I knew that, under the matter-of-factness of her tone, she recognized that the lessons of caregiving need to be taught by example—she just happened to make it her life’s work.
Be compassionate and patient, show up consistently, bring a meal, and express your love.
These are the lessons I take away from my childhood exposure to the family caregiver. Is that all that’s required? No. But they’re good starting points. The doctors and my sisters will fill in the terminology gaps—I’ll ask detailed questions and listen closely. The dialogue between elder and offspring will continue. I’ll make sacrifices, they’ll kvetch. I’m not trying to make light of caregiving but I finally understand that I’m as ready as I’ll ever be for this next generation of care.