Grandpa Pal, Grandma Beth: How They Handle Aging


In their late sixties, Elaine’s parents, Grandpa Pal and Grandma Beth, found their lives changing abruptly. Grandpa was released from his employment and then, one by one, from community and Church positions—from boards of directors, commissions, and a stake presidency. His life of travel, speaking, publishing, and leading settled into a limited domestic sphere: a garden, a home teaching assignment.

Grandma’s health worsened. They faced a prospect not uncommon among the elderly: increasing dependence, loneliness—and boredom. What they did about it is a lesson for any generation.

Determined to resist the feelings of uselessness and depression that could easily have come—especially for grandpa, whose life-style was changing more drastically—their first step was to become full-time grandparents. Grandma had long been an inventor of toys for tots—tin-can dragons, thread-spool necklaces, jar-ring tosses, tiny bottle whistles. Now, grandma and grandpa invited each of the grandchildren to spend a day at the family homestead. The grandparents took their tiny guests to the park to feed the ducks. The children, in turn, helped in the garden, where grandpa taught them to use tools. Grandchildren drove with him to an artesian well to collect drinking water in gallon jugs. He talked with them and taught them to write. Each visit occupied a full day, which he followed up with a personal letter to the grandchild. The little ones responded with a zest that enriched both generations.

Observing these goings-on, the neighborhood children invited themselves over. Among grandpa’s new friends was seven-year-old Jeff, who lived up the street with his divorced mother. When a toy needed repair, or when he just wanted to “rap,” Jeff wandered down to grandpa’s house. Grandma provided a cookie and a drink, and the seventy-five years were spanned.

Grandma and grandpa also began visiting their married children more often. Grandpa Pal found that the busy fathers, coping with demands of careers and Church callings, were months behind in home repairs. While grandma helped prepare a meal, grandpa turned his “Rube Goldberg” skills to broken screens, sagging doors, leaky hoses, and untended gardens. In his own workshop he undertook larger projects for the young families—building patio furniture and raising garden starts in his greenhouse.

Grandma also added to the comfort of each new nest by crocheting an afghan for each home. Often she used with the growing children skills she had acquired as a school teacher. More than once she helped a grandchild in social studies class by dressing up in her grandmother’s pioneer costume for a presentation at school. She told stories of her ancestors and shared peppermint candies and hoarhound drops from her pioneer handbag.

To further improve schoolwork among the grandchildren grandpa sponsored a penmanship contest, offering a new notebook as a prize. Winners were awarded prizes for “neatest penmanship,” “most progress,” “first sample received,” or “shows promise,” so that all won something.

Grandma Beth, blessed with a sharp wit, also incorporated humor into her projects. Grandma’s “one-of-a-kind” gifts became a highlight of the grandchildren’s wedding showers. She invented such intriguing items as a “tired foot lifter,” a “never-ending styrofoam jump game,” a “two-finger ring toss,” and a “medicine bottle checker game.”

Grandma and grandpa’s later seventies, however, have brought new challenges. The burdens of ill health increased, and some of grandma’s activities have had to be curtailed. Her hands succumbed to painful arthritis; the beloved handicrafts were set aside. Remaining at home more to care for grandma, grandpa has allocated increasing amounts of his modest retirement income to long-distance telephone calls with family members, extending holiday greetings on family birthdays (more than eighty of them) and at times of sickness. He composes editorials for the family newspaper and helps initiate and plan family reunions. He has had to be low-key, since his adult offspring are self-confident and capable. Nonetheless, he reserves a fireside hour at each gathering where he turns the conversation to his counsel.

The long lost art of handwritten letters has also remained alive at the family “headquarters.” Regardless of the size of the task done for them or visit made by a family member, grandpa and grandma traditionally send a letter of thanks, encouragement, or counsel.

Home teaching is still a month-long assignment for grandpa. He delights in the aging members he has visited—an eighty-six-year-old woman, a landscape artist, who kept up landscaping skills around her own house; and an eighty-three-year-old blind widow whose memory is well packed with recollections.

Perhaps because of his own devotion to home teaching, grandpa has gained new appreciation for the sensitive home teachers who come to see him. Thoughtful home teachers are among the helpful friends who have carried boxes up or down stairs for him, pruned trees, mowed lawns, put away lawn furniture, offered transportation, made a phone call, or picked up a bottle of medicine at the drug store. It is no easier to ask for help at age seventy-five than it is at age thirty-five, and grandpa is grateful for sensitive family, friends, or teachers who come ready to lift and move and deliver.

Despite the size of their ever-expanding family and the frequent visitors, grandma and grandpa still find loneliness creeping in. “I make no apology. It is I who must do something to evaporate loneliness,” grandpa tells us. One habit he has nurtured is reciting scriptures and poetry. He finds that reciting memorized passages brings back old inspiration and delight and breaks the monotony of loneliness. And what if people think he is talking to himself? “Just raise your voice and let them in on it,” he advises. An added benefit: “Insomnia is no foe of mine,” he says. “I use no sleeping pills. If I don’t fall asleep when I should, I start reciting scriptures or poetry.”

Thus learning has become the major defense against obsolescence. Reading and writing have been grandpa’s everyday formula. And as he shares what he learns with grandma, they find their conversations enriching a lifetime of learning and growing together. Recently grandpa purchased four large volumes to study for his “winter’s continuing education,” but he finished them before the snow fell. So he turned to writing—mostly memories and thoughts. He has taken comfort from President Spencer W. Kimball’s encouragement to keep a daily journal, since he had kept one since his mission to Great Britain at age fifty-four. During a recent hospitalization he expressed his frustration with boredom from confinement to oxygen tubes, a heart monitor, and intravenous needles in his wrists. He could hardly wait to get home to his studies and writing.

In addition to journals, grandpa has dictated thirty taped hours of oral history and filled a notebook with memories of his friends. “I refuse to forget,” grandpa says. “My notebook lists hundreds of names of my friends who have blessed me in one way or another through the decades.” (“Many of my friends think I’ve been gone for years,” he adds with a twinkle. “When they hear I’m still ‘hanging in there’ they ask, incredulously, ‘Senior or junior?’”)

Despite all these projects, keeping busy has not been enough. Loneliness has to be remedied with spirituality as well as service. Humility, meekness, obedience, and repentance are lifelong pursuits; grandpa and grandma have learned that they need to stay teachable and close to the Spirit of God. The Spirit becomes manifest in their lives through their will to do good—a desire that enriches the lives of all of us blessed with youth. Some of grandma and grandpa’s good deeds may seem insignificant to them, but the rest of us within their circle of love know that each thoughtful act binds us closer and bridges the gap of decades.

[illustration] Illustrated by Scott Greer

Douglas D. Alder, a professor of history at Utah State University, Logan, is director of music in his ward.

Elaine Alder is stake Relief Society visiting teacher leader. The couple have four children.