For a few months before my mother could move back to Atlanta to care for my grandparents, I worked full-time and provided some caregiving support for them. Between waiting tables and preparing to move across the country, it seemed like I only barely had the time to make it to doctor’s appointments and grocery stores for my grandparents. I felt overwhelmed and somehow still like I had failed. My grandparents have been instrumental in my life since the day I was born—my grandmother passed on her love of reading and musical theatre to me and my grandfather shared his love of spicy food and coffee with me before I probably should have tasted either. I love them very much, and I always have. I was glad to have an opportunity to help, but it seemed like I was never doing enough.
My grandparents, suddenly without transportation, spent most of their days in their small, ranch-style home. They tend to argue about what to watch on TV, so into separate rooms, they went for hours at a time. (My grandmother likes mysteries, musicals, and quiz shows; my grandfather likes sports and the news.) When I would arrive to take them shopping or to the library or to the doctor, their faces would light up. Every important thing going on in their lives would need to be checked on, updated, reviewed while we drove around metro Atlanta. There were cousins getting married, family history to share, funny stories about my siblings and me as children. I would say goodbye to rush to a shift or go home to pack boxes, wondering why I felt like I hadn’t done enough to support them even while they assured me they couldn’t ask for more.
I had an important lesson to learn, then. I thought that the most important thing I was doing for my grandparents was driving them safely. While that certainly was important, they could have called a cab or asked a friendly neighbor to drive. (They’re friendly people, so I wouldn’t be surprised if several neighbors volunteered.) Instead, they wanted to spend time talking to me.
Caregiving doesn’t always have to be “active.” Many caregivers, as I did, feel like we aren’t doing enough. We know that caring for seniors is challenging, complex, and multifaceted. We want to provide the best life our loved ones can possibly have. Family caregivers, especially, may experience a drive to return caregiving we might have received as children. (I definitely did.) That results in us constantly moving around, checking lists and checking them twice. It can leave us too tired or busy to provide one of the basic facets of a good, healthy life: personal and social connection.
What I learned while driving my grandparents around for a few months was that they needed a ride, but more than that they needed me to give them a ride. They were curious about my life, my goals for graduate school, my time as a teacher. They wanted to know about the person I was dating and to share the story of their own first dates, decades ago. When we ran out of stories, they just wanted to sit with me and drink good coffee or share a pizza.
If you are caring for a senior, see if you can take some time today, tomorrow, this week to just being there. Yes, there are meals to cook, homes to tidy, and more. A good caregiver knows what needs to be done and does it well. However, it is sometimes enough to simply be present. Conversations, stories, jokes, shared moments of comfort and familiarity cannot be replaced and are the memories I cherish about that time in my life with my grandparents. Sometimes you don’t need to give care; you just need to be there.