When Parenting Your Parents Becomes Heartbreaking
"Get ready. What you're going to see isn't pleasant." Those were the words of warning from my sister as I prepared to embark on a journey to Norway to visit my 87-year-old grandmother. "Mormor," our Norwegian grandmother (literally translated it means "mother's mother")had been a central part of our lives for as long as my sister and I could remember. We spent each summer traveling with our parents to my mother's homeland where we would stay in our grandparents' house for a month at a time. There, we would enjoy home-cooked meals in the Scandinavian tradition, trips to visit far-flung locales in the northern part of the country, and lots of time as a family spent playing cards and telling stories.
As my sister and I have grown older and had children of our own, we've travelled less and less to Norway. We still see our family: My mother spends a few months in her native land each year, and our aunts, uncles and cousins love the chance to come and visit the U.S.
But visiting Mormor has to be done on her own turf. Diagnosed with diabetes when she was in her 50s, the disease has wreaked havoc on her eyesight, leaving her almost blind. Traveling to the U.S. became impossible on her own, so my parents would go to Norway to pick her up and bring her to the stateside for important occasions, like my sister's wedding.
In the past year, my aunts and uncles warned us of her deteriorating condition, but it was easier to ignore. It was almost impossible to believe that a woman who walked or biked to work every day until well into her 60s and 70s, and who delighted in swimming in the frigid Norwegian water could have deteriorated. But she had. According to my relatives, she now walked with the assistance of a walker and had home health aides come and administer her medication and heat up prepared meals three times a day.
I put a brave face on and flew to Oslo, where my mother and I took a short train ride down to the coastal town where my mother was raised and my grandmother has lived for generations. Her home had always had a majestic air to me as a small child. Surrounded by wild raspberry and strawberry bushes and perched on the granite rocks creating a wild backyard that would have made Harry Potter jealous, my sister and I spent hours "exploring" Mormor's backyard. Now, as we approached, we saw that the vegetation was in need of trimming and the house looked worn. We found Mormor in her bed, having suffered from a headache that morning. But upon hearing our voices, a huge smile broke across her face and she sat up for hugs and greetings all around.
We spent the afternoon chatting and it became evident that my grandmother's short-term memory has been severely affected. She asked where my kids attended school multiple times and repeatedly inquired as to when I'd be flying back to the U.S. As we left her that evening, my heart broke and I remembered my sister's words of warning. The thought of her sitting in her chair, with nothing but the radio and e-books, was gut-wrenching. Without her sight she could no longer knit, read, watch TV, and even walk farther than from her bedroom to the living room.
"There must be a better way than this," was the thought that kept flashing through my mind. But what are the options? Unlike in former days, many older generations do not live with their children as they become elderly. (Some countries still have a culture of accepting their elders into their homes, and I salute them.) My grandmother has wanted to stay in her home for as long as possible, but with the long, dark winter ahead, the prospect of lonely days trapped in her house are daunting.
So, in the end, she will move into an assisted living community in the near future. Our hope is that, surrounded by peers, she will have more opportunity to interact and flex her short-term-memory muscles. In any case, her days will be filled with activity--if she so chooses--and most importantly, she will have round-the-clock care.
Is the situation ideal? Absolutely not. In an ideal world, my grandmother would never have lost her sight and she would have remained active in her community as a result. Our lives would have been such that welcoming her into our homes would have been the first solution.Thankfully, Scandinavia is known for generous social benefits, so the health aides that visit her three times a day are at no cost to her. But it still feels all wrong.
By Christina Anderson