Grandpa is gone now, and we miss him dearly. But when he first came to live with us, we faced some unique challenges. We fixed up the best room in the house for him, installed a small refrigerator, television, microwave oven, a couch that opened into a queen-sized bed, and placed his favorite rocking chair and other items of his in the room. He had his own private entrance from the outside and a lock on the inside door. Our boys’ bedroom was adjacent to his, and they shared a bathroom. The rest of the family lived in the opposite end of the house with kitchen, dining, and living room in between. It was, we thought, an amiable arrangement.
But tensions began to build almost immediately. No matter how many times we warned the boys not to play rough-and-tumble in their rooms or leave their balls, bats, and baseball gloves strewn about, they frequently forgot. Of course we didn’t want our sons to feel that they must tiptoe through life for fear of disturbing grandpa. But on the other hand, grandpa deserved a bit of peace in his last years, and we were trying to do the best we could for him.
We ended up wondering if we were doing him any real favor by making room for him with us. After all, he had to endure the noise and clutter of young children, take a chance on stumbling over their toys, listen to them quarrel, and live with our disciplinary tactics.
As the months wore on, we talked about solutions. Build grandpa his own apartment? Buy him his own trailer? Relocate him in a senior citizen community? A rest home?
No; it wasn’t that simple. We knew grandpa well enough to understand that if he had a choice and could make a list of reasons for living with us, he would include the kinds of things that could never be duplicated away from home: frequent hugs from rascally little boys and doting young granddaughters; opportunities to watch the children grow and progress; daily associations with loved ones; freedom to plant a tree, work a garden, build, repair, and pursue a dozen other projects.
And for our part, we couldn’t discount his helpfulness. Many times he had pinch-hit for us by having a snack ready for the kids when they got home from school. He had listened to our first-grader practice reading, fixed a flat tire on a child’s bicycle, burned the garbage, weeded the garden, sprayed for weeds, ground wheat for making bread, helped prepare fruits and vegetables for canning—and countless other unselfish acts of love and thoughtfulness.
Perhaps his greatest contribution had been as a “cheerleader.” He would sit for hours listening to the children practice their violin or piano lessons. With an “audience,” they were more anxious than usual to do well, and had made much progress. He never offered criticism—only raves and cheers for the beauty of it; and they had returned often for his plaudits.
We thought, too, of his dear wife, now gone—how close they had been, how clean she kept everything for him, how loving, what good company she was to him. How it would pain her to see him lonely and uncared for. She would surely ask him, when they met again, about every detail of our lives. How would she feel if he answered that he rarely saw us and didn’t know?
Admittedly, we were torn between our feelings about wanting to live our own lives without worrying about grandpa and our vow to always take care of our own. We weighed the alternatives, recalling the loneliness on the faces of many of the elderly we had visited in rest homes.
Then we prayed. We told the Lord about our concerns—and about our love and desires for grandpa. How could we make it work without resentment and hard feelings on both sides? Praying about the situation was important because we didn’t want to sever the ties and emotional bonds of kinship, but day-to-day irritations can often cloud the mind and blow problems out of perspective.
Prayer brings them into focus, and solutions somehow manifest themselves.
Our answers didn’t come all at once, but finally, the clouds parted. How silly of us not to have thought of it before! We had put our boys next door to grandpa and girls near us. Suddenly, the solution seemed obvious.
Connie, our very quiet and orderly twelve-year-old, was moved to grandpa’s end of the house, and the boys were “reassigned” closer to us. Connie was given the responsibility of caring for grandpa. She was to clean his room when he needed help and see to it that the bathroom was cleaned daily. Connie had always been sensitive to including him in her life whenever possible. She had made it a point to walk with him when he was slower than the rest of us; and she especially loved practicing her music for him and thrived on his attentive listening.
The result of these adjustments were immediate: no more toys or noise! Not to mention a cleaner room and sweeter company. The tension disappeared, and harmony was restored.
Through all the troubles and triumphs, we learned many ways to make life easier for all:
1. We let our children know that it was important to respect grandpa; and if a situation was handled in a way they didn’t like or felt was unfair, they could come to us and talk about it. The matter would then be handled by Ron with his father (grandpa). We learned long ago that when a problem arises, it is best handled through channels. Rather than letting the children argue—or letting grandpa lecture, or find fault—the matter would be brought to Ron, the children’s father. He was the intermediary:
“Grandpa, I know that the children irritate you at times. When they do, just let me know , and I’ll handle it.”
“Boys, you feel free to invite your friends over to play. Just keep away from grandpa’s side of the house—and don’t let your football land in the garden, whatever you do!”
“Grandpa, why don’t you go to your room and rest for a while? I’ll handle this for now.”
“I’m sorry you had to chase the cow back in the pasture after the boys left the gate open. I’ll speak to the boys about it right after supper.”
“Grandpa, that’s why I got that cow—to train our sons to take responsibility, not just for the milk. I’ll work with them just like you did with me.”
2. We didn’t get upset if we couldn’t always move to grandpa’s “music.” We determined that we weren’t going to feel guilty if we didn’t do things exactly his way, reasoning that he was not familiar with the background for many of our decisions or the extent of our particular stewardship. But we always valued his wisdom and broad experience, and we often used him as a “sounding board.” Frequently his added insight enabled us to make better decisions. Nevertheless, we constantly reminded ourselves that we were accountable for whatever decisions we make; therefore, they must be our own.
It’s helpful to remember that parents will always be parents. A good rule to remember is that if you don’t want their advice—which is bound to be offered simply because of their sincere interest and love for you—don’t tell them your troubles. We personally feel that these matters are our stewardship, and our confidant should be our Heavenly Father.
3. Money was kept “strictly business” between us and grandpa. If we bought him groceries he asked for, he paid us back to the penny, and vice versa. He paid his bills, and we paid ours. If a large sum of money was borrowed for any reason, it was paid back at the earliest opportunity. Borrowing money from grandpa was always the last resort; though he kindly never said a word, it is the natural disposition of any lender to watch the borrower’s every purchase with a critical eye—which can make for very strained relations.
4. We tried to involve Grandpa in our lives as much as we could. Grandpa at eighty-three found it difficult to get around, but he still needed fulfillment. We found that the best way we could help him feel involved was to share with him our joys and accomplishments. We talked about every good grade and every school or sports honor. He got a minute-by-minute account of David’s football pass or Brenda’s outstanding talent presentation at the Junior Miss Pageant. We made a special effort to take him with us to the children’s concerts and programs. In a sense, we were his glory. He liked to hear, again and again, how special his family was and why!
5. We consciously tried changing places with him mentally and emotionally. Doing so helped us understand that some of the things most important to grandpa were his privacy, a sense of dignity, a measure of usefulness felt daily, and some degree of physical independence. This exercise in empathy affected our interaction with grandpa noticeably.
6. We tried to keep grandpa in clean clothes and tidy surroundings without being fanatic about it. He felt responsible for his own room, and even though he lived with us, we treated the room we had prepared for him as his own home. We didn’t burst in without knocking or expect him to care for it according to our standards. He had a lock on the door, and the children were taught that his refrigerator, television, and other belongings were not to be touched without his permission. In return, we expected him to stay clear of our bedroom area, respect our mealtimes, leave all disciplining of the children to us, and keep the rules of the house. He maintained his separate identity as “head of his home,” and we retained our separate identity also.
7. We assured grandpa that he had a home with us that he could always count on—but we made arrangements for him to visit his other children occasionally. This gave our family time to be alone; at the same time, it helped him maintain his own family ties. We felt it was important to encourage his other family relationships. We helped him by alerting the stewardess on the airplane to his special problems with sight and hearing, providing a wheelchair so his strength wouldn’t give way with traveling, reminding him that his other grandchildren need nurturing, and helping him with expenses if necessary.
This occasional separation was an excellent “safety valve.” No matter how hard we all tried, we were bound to get on each other’s nerves from time to time; and when patience wore thin and we were thinking negatively, it was time for a change. By leaving—even for a day, but usually it was a week or two—grandpa ended up missing our cuddling and care, and we ended up missing all he did for us. By the time he returned, all of us were refreshed and back on an even keel again.
8. We preserved his dignity. One way we did this was by recognizing that his hearing was not like it used to be and making the special effort to “speak up” when he was around, patiently repeating our words if necessary. We saw that he got to the dentist, doctor, and grocery store when he needed to; appointment times scheduled regularly overcame his feelings of dependency. We saw that he had a regular haircut, proper shaving facilities, clean clothes, and a shower available so that he could maintain his grooming and personal care.
Another way we encouraged his feeling of personal dignity was by delegating part of the yard upkeep to him. He worked hard every day and was conscientious about doing “his share.” Grandpa knew our busy schedule and felt our sincere appreciation for his help.
These days, when we think of grandpa, we remember the blessing he was to our family while living with us. He was often able to sense needs of our children that might otherwise have been overlooked. He also acted as an extra pair of eyes; the children complained that they couldn’t get away with anything! One of our children was especially active, so grandpa was available with an extra portion of unconditional love.
It was a blessing, too, that the children never came home to an empty house. Grandpa was always ready to handle emergencies, from a car in need of jumper cables to a bicycle tire that needed pumping up. He “saved the day” on many occasions. Once our trailer caught fire; grandpa hooked up the hose and had the blaze extinguished before it did much damage.
Because he was born in 1897, grandpa was a walking treasury of stories about the “good old days,” and he had enthralled listeners in every one of us. He had the time, too, to read the paper and watch the news, and his lively discussions of current events kept us informed and interested.
In more ways than we can name, grandpa blessed our home and our lives. As individuals and as a family, we grew in patience, understanding, empathy, and consideration for others. And we learned how to give and take without sacrificing personal identity.
It wasn’t always easy—but we wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Ronald Zirker is a school psychologist. He and his wife, Sherri, teach the Family Relations class in Sunday School in their Mesa, Arizona ward. They are parents of five children.