Thursday, July 5, 2018

There's No Place Like Freedom

by Giselle Renarde

Did I tell you my grandmother has moved to a retirement home? It was kind of a big deal.

I'm not entirely sure how the decision was arrived at that my grandmother would move out of her house and into a retirement home. It was such a momentous event. You'd think I'd be able to pinpoint exactly how and why it happened. But I can't. This year has been such a whirlwind of family stuff. It seemed like one day she was living in her house and the next she'd rented a respite room for 6 months. She'd been there 3 days when she signed a lease to move in permanently.

In the beginning, everything was wonderful. Everything was perfect.  My grandmother raved about the food, the care, the accommodations, the activities.

She'd been there less than a week the first time I visited her. Right away, she told me, "I have friends already!"  Which is wonderful. When she lived at the house, she had family, but that's it. Not a friend in the world. I mean that seriously. She relied on her kids for everything, including socializing. She's got a sister who is two years older than she is, and they only speak twice a year. So making friends was a big deal.

All the same, it was clear to me she was seeing this retirement home through rose-coloured glasses. That's fine. She's 87 years old. She's allowed to be excited about something. But she obviously wasn't acknowledging the negatives. It's almost like she'd fallen in love with the place. It was new love.

My sister and I visited my grandmother this weekend. We both had independent and innate feelings that it was very important to see her right away. My mother had mentioned to us that my grandmother's been ill of late, but that's no surprise during a heat wave. I've been sick too. Totally because of the heat.

When we visited, we found a grandmother who was practically a changeling of the one we've always known. My grandma has faced a lot of hardships in her life, but she's always had a positive attitude. The grandma we visited this weekend was the opposite of that person.

Everything was terrible. Everything! The retirement home she'd raved about when she first moved in was a prison to her. She hated it, hated everything about it.

She wanted her freedom. She wanted to go home.

"If I was at home, I could go out in the backyard and sit in the sun. I can't do that here. I'm locked in this one little room. I'm trapped here."

Well, I hate to call bullshit on my own grandmother... so I didn't do it to her face... but I will do it here. Because when we arrived, where did we find her? Locked in her one little room? Nope. We found her out on the accessible front deck overlooking the gardens, basking in the sun, chatting with her friends.

At home, she couldn't have gone out in her backyard if she tried. There are steps to get down into it and she no longer has the mobility to access spaces without ramps.

The freedom she imagines is imaginary freedom.

That's the thing about freedom: a lot of it is in your mind.

Easy for me to say. I can hear and see and walk on my own. I'm not 87 and my body isn't falling apart. My grandmother has been complaining about her physical deterioration for years, and she has every right to her complaints. I'd be complaining too, if I had all her medical conditions.

But there was a subtle difference this weekend, when we saw her. The complaining wasn't good-natured as it used to be. My grandma has always liked to laugh at her foibles. She's always told funny stories about all the inappropriate places she's peed (in my uncle's car, in my aunt's car, at Subway...), but this weekend's story was about waking up in blood and shit. It wasn't a funny story. It wasn't meant to be funny.

She kept saying, "I wish they'd just take me out back and shoot me."

Now, she says stuff like that all the time. The difference was the tone. The despair. The depression--a state I know all too well, but I've never seen it in my spirited grandmother.

In my mind, it's natural that she's dipped into this low. Maybe not usual for her, but it was bound to happen. When she first moved in, she couldn't find a single fault with her new residence. Now she can't find even one bright spot. She'll even out in time. The place isn't perfect, but it's far from terrible.

I just hope she's got that time ahead of her.

This weekend, a family friend's grandson lost his battle with cancer. He died two weeks shy of his sixth birthday. I was just reading his obituary, since the funeral is tomorrow. His parents ask that everyone wear blue instead of black, because that was his favourite colour. OR, if you happen to own a Star Wars T-shirt or Pokemon pyjamas, wear those. "He'd want you to be comfortable."

His parents miss him, obviously, but they insist he's found freedom.

I want my grandma to live forever. I love her. She is my font of wisdom, of stories. Nothing surprises her. There's nothing here she hasn't seen before. But every day that passes brings more pain, and she's lost hope. She's gotten to a point where she doesn't believe there will ever be a day where she feels better than she felt the day before. In her body. In her mind.

But you know what? When my sister and I left, she thanked us for the visit. She said she'd been feeling awful, just awful, and seeing us brightened her day.

I guess we'll have to visit more often. At this stage, it's all we can do.


  1. I really hope you just hit her on a bad day. Those do happen.

    She's lucky to have you.

  2. Oh, Giselle. That must be hard to watch. As long as your company brightens her day, that’s the best thing you can give her.

  3. I took care of both of my parents, through to their ends; alone, because my brother told me it "depressed" him to see them that way. Dad used to beg me to bring him his guns, so he could end it himself. I told him I wasn't willing to go to jail for him, and they'd know that I brought the guns to him. I have no doubt at all in my mind that he'd have offed himself, since being bed-ridden was a terrible curse for a man who'd spent his life being physically active, even walking 5 miles or more every day, while he was getting chemo for cancer. When I asked him if there was anything he could still enjoy, I hoped he'd say that my visits pleased him, or that my kids stopping by made him smile. No...he said he enjoyed watching his old VCR tapes of previously-played World Cup games. And he grudgingly admitted that when the "wee girlies" changed his diapers, he got a good view of "more young titties than I've ever seen in my life!" He was a curmudgeon through to the end. But I miss him.

    Mom had dementia, so she hated everything about the place I moved them both to. Until she was so far gone that even though her motto was, "without cigarettes, life wouldn't be worth living," she forgot that she was a smoker. At that point, I knew there was little of Emily left. When the complaining stopped, from the crabbiest person I've ever known, I missed it. I still do.

    Now my mother-in-law is at an assisted living place, that we practically had to drag her, kicking and screaming, into, after too many dangerous falls in her house, that required multiple surgeries and caused problems that won't go away. On a good day, she's okay with being there. On a bad day, she sits in her place, surrounded by her own furniture and pictures of her family, and complains that she's being warehoused, and wants to die right now, and get this torture over with.

    I don't know what the answer is. Reality is that both men and women have to work, in my case, multiple jobs, to make ends meet. So there isn't anyone at home anymore, to care for aging relatives who need 24/7 care. But then, this country doesn't seem to have to will to care about anyone anymore, not young children, not young people, so why should the elderly get any consideration either?

    I hope you do get to visit more often. Encourage your grandmother to talk about better days. I always asked my elderly relatives to tell me about when my mom was a baby, or when they themselves were growing up. Those are the memories that will make them smile, and no one else ever wants to hear about them. You will gain insight into family history (herstory?) and she will have a reason to enjoy some good memories.

  4. I do so hope that your grandmother can adjust and find ways to enjoy where she is, the social aspects, meals provided, etc. My father resisted so long that he finally had to skip assisted living and go to a long-term care facility, and he's now too deaf to make much in the way of contacts there. I can manage to communicate with him, with an effort, and I print out "newsletters" for him in a very large, bold font, which he appreciates. He's resigned to where he is, and to having me arrange the sale of his house, which makes things easier for me, but it still makes me very sad. He never expected to live so long, and has said he'd just as soon pass away suddenly in his sleep or from a stroke, but in fact he'll probably make it to at least 100, just getting farther and farther from the active, bright man he was. He played tennis into his 90s, and was a sharp bridge player with friends who were used to communicating with him until about eight months ago, but now I don't think he could remember well enough to play cards. His chief joy these days is watching the Red Sox baseball games or tennis on TV, although he falls asleep before the games are over. To get back to the point, your grandmother sounds like she's still capable of getting some enjoyment out of her situation, so I hope she can manage it.

  5. Best of luck, Giselle. As others have said, I'm sure this is hard to see, and my thoughts are very much with you.

    You wrote: That's the thing about freedom: a lot of it is in your mind.

    I think about that a lot. I tell myself stories about other times and other places and sometimes I sort of call myself out on that and notice that I've adjusted things to a rosier, unrealistic view. I'm sure it's extra hard to resist that temptation when options are limited.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.