Wednesday, February 26, 2014

How to Take Care of Old People

Maybe this will explain why I haven't posted in months.

Years of caring for my grandmother turned out to be surprisingly helpful when it came time to lend a hand with my ailing Popop.  While I’d characterize these two caricatures similarly in some respects – set in their ways, unwilling to ask for help, fascinated by food that isn’t good for them – they are very different in others: tidiness, unwillingness to fight age and disease, willingness to see doctors, hopefulness, depression, anxiety, finances, conflict management, television preferences, and nicotine habits.  

The following ten pieces of advice apply to both, so I am presumptuous enough to think they apply to the older person in your life, too.  They are the things nobody tells you but that are very important, albeit possibly obvious to minds better than mine. 
  1. Put a paper towel in the bottom of the phlegm bucket.  On a related note, once a hacking cough has been established for any reason (smoking, cancer, pneumonia, allergies to the ten thousand cats) keep this clean large yogurt container with the folded paper towel in the bottom near the favorite chair, bed, or couch for easy access.  Cleaning it is way easier when there is a paper towel on the bottom (and layers of tissue, if your aging relative is super awesome) because the grossest part just dumps into the trash can.
  2. Getting out of bed (or into it), eating, and YOU are the biggest events in their day.  Respect that.  If they like their sheets folded over one half of the bed and a big pile of blankets on the bottom with lots of handkerchiefs and mail all around them, then that’s ok as long as the crumbs aren’t touching raw skin and you shake out the sheet (see ninja clean below) when they are in the bathroom.  If they like hospital folds and taut  mattress pads with exactly seven inches of sheet above the comforter, then give it to them.  This is as important to them as your conversation with your boss, your awesome date night, or the blog post you are looking forward to reading later.  Don’t come in rushing a mile a minute, do the dishes, and whirl off again.  You are the biggest event in their day.  Even if you are only there for thirty minutes, let there be a ceremony, a pattern, a ritual; it matters.  Talk before you work.  Don’t treat them like work.
  3. Don’t treat them like work. They are people who know way more than you about everything and could surely grasp the concept of an iphone if it mattered, but it doesn’t.  Slow down long enough to listen and stop treating them like a chore, unless you are far better than I and therefore never lapsed into treating your grandmother’s dishes or your grandfather’s water bottle like an item on our to do list.  It’s actually an act of love, which is very different.
  4. Remember that they are more surprised than you are that they are old.  They might have always had silver hair to you, but maybe you are struggling because it feels like yesterday that they were taking you out to Boston Market or letting you play jungle gym on their shoulders.  Well, it feels like yesterday that they were 25 and going on dates with hot chicks named Mary Jo or Ruthie.  They are more surprised than you that they look like pieces of paper on fragmented popsicle sticks.
  5. Febreeze and Lysol Towelettes are your best friend.  Old person smell is really just dust, mouse poop, dander, mold, and stale bowels (with a possible side of unclean trash cans and cigarettes).  Get the microbial kind.  Read the note below on ninja cleaning.  I hate both of these products in my daily life, in my house.  However, something that kills odor and germs in the room recently vacated by your family member and which can be hidden if they forgot their dentures on the way out (it happens) is very, very  useful.  See the note on ninja cleaning.
  6. Ninja clean.  Don’t throw it in their face that they can’t dust anymore, just straighten up ONLY THE THINGS YOU ARE ALLOWED TO TOUCH while they aren’t in the room.  Sweep the hall and shake out the rugs when they are sleeping.  Use cleaning products that can be put away quickly.  Use a dustbuster – quieter, disturbs less.
  7. If they give directions, follow them.
  8. Keep their medicine routine unless their doctor tells you to change it.  If medicine means tea, then keep that routine.  If medicine is a series of pills, and all the empty bottles are in boxes upon boxes of empty pill bottles, well, don’t be so sure you can organize it better than they do.  This is not your life.  You are not responsible for them, they are.  You actually can’t fix them.  Do what they tell you.
  9. Let yourself be young.  If you’re reading this, you aren’t as old as the person you’re thinking about.  But whoever it is – your great grandmother, your aunt, your grandfather – was your age once, too.  If they’re churlish because you aren’t there, well, tell them about what you did.  If they don’t care about your discovery of gin and ginger beers, they’re scrooges.  That’s ok.  They’re entitled.  You’re entitled to your youth, too.  Your life matters.  The things that make you real matter.  You can’t take care of whever it is that needs your energy if you resent them – so stop.  It’s harder than this, but…
  10. 10.   Be where you are.  Find a way to remind yourself that you are only in the space that you are.  Be with them, and then be somewhere else.  Just be there.  Start by noticing what’s happening around you.  Then keep going.  You can do it.  Notice the sound of the floorboards, the blankets, the gin fizz.  Notice the way their hair smells or their dust resettles.  Notice that they wear the same socks every day.  Then notice that your apartment has gleaming floors.  Notice.  Then notice the next thing.  There will always be something else – but what’s here now is more important.


  1. You are wise beyond your years, young lady. Your two latest posts are gems I shall lock in my heart and call up as needed. Thank you.

    1. Thank you so much for your kindness, Jean!