I spent last week in Eagle River, part of the Great Northwoods, in Northern Wisconsin. My grandparents purchased a lakefront home on Otter Lake (part of the Eagle River chain of lakes) a couple of decades ago. It was my grandpa's dream to retire to a home on a lake, but the dream has begun to tarnish.
The first problem is location. Eagle River is a 4+ hour drive from Milwaukee. Not an easy trip if something serious would happen to one of them. We've tried to encourage them to move closer to Milwaukee to no avail. Sometimes they say yes. Mom will run around, talking to retirement communities, picking up information about condos or apartments in places like Muskego, Waukesha, and Hartland. She'll mail all the information to them only to have them change their minds. Grandma's sight is poor and her balance is so bad, she cannot be trusted to cross the room by herself because the reality is she could fall over at any time (even with her walker). That doesn't stop her from trying though, which makes it even worse. Grandpa is her primary caretaker because they don't want a nurse in the house all the time. They have a nurse who comes over twice a week for two hours each visit, but after that, Grandpa is on his own.
Lately, Grandma's been asking us to drive up there and help her clean house. So, for the last few years, my aunt, my parents and I have made trips to visit which were to include some amount of purging. Usually this amounted to us going through a closet or a cabinet only for grandma to say, "OK, so now, let's put everything back in there because it's safer there. We'll know where it is and we can get rid of it later."
So this time, I expected more of the same. When Mom and I defrosted their stand alone freezer, we found tupperware bowls of soup from 1983 and butter old enough to start kindergarden. She wanted it all saved. "But it's frozen!" We threw it away. It was far past any possible date when it was still safe to eat. Years ago, she would never have kept anything in the freezer that long. Mom can remember Grandma cleaning out the freezer and tossing out anything older than a year or two. A couple of years is a far cry from 1983. Maybe she isn't connecting the time as it's passing by anymore.
We moved on to the rest of the basement with the help of my aunt. As we moved along, we hauled things upstairs for Grandma to look at and, to my surprise, she told us to get rid of most of the items we found. But apparently, she hadn't discussed this with Grandpa because at one point, he was almost in tears when my aunt asked him how he was doing with all of this. "This is our life." he told her with a wave of his hand to encompass the pile of their memories being donated to a local charity. That was heartbreaking for all of us. Grandma seems to be ready to let go and move on. Grandpa isn't.
And all of it makes you look more closely at your family and yourself. As hard as it's been for me to get ever closer to 40, it's even harder for me to visit my grandparents and wonder if this will be the last trip to the Great Northwoods before we are all there to clean out the house for good. My grandma used to be so full of life and now the big activity for her each day is getting to the bathroom and back to her chair in one piece. Going to grandma's house always meant we were greeted with the smells of baking bread, pies, or cookies -- often times my brother and I pulled up a chair and "helped." Now, we are greeted by the sounds of the TV, and the only working together in the kitchen includes grandma in a chair pointing out which cabinet to find the casserole dish in and disagreeing with us about the right way to make barbecue sauce. She argues with Grandpa about everything.
Before my great-grandma died, Grandma always said to Mom, "Don't let me get like that." Now it's my mom saying, "Don't let me get like that" and I'm wondering if it's a fate I won't be able to escape. My husband and I don't have any kids, (so my nieces better watch out) but am I destined to follow the same route? Can I outwit what seems almost to be a family curse? It scares me to watch grandma suffer and it scares me to think Mom might end up with the same ills. Will Mom be just as stubborn and refuse to seek assisted living or other medical care when it's necessary?
Will I have the same battles with myself? I hope not to, but will I have a choice? Can I be one of those older ladies who has so much energy I can outrun a 16-year-old track star? Can I please keep my sight because reading is my favorite way to relax? Will exercise help keep me in tip top shape or will it just not matter? Will my mind stay sharp?
If it doesn't...how will I even know? That's the scariest part.