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Multigenerational Dignity

You might have noticed we don’t write much about a big focus for us each day: what’s going on with my grandparents across the street and how we can lend a hand. Mostly for their privacy and dignity, plus it’s kind of boring to talk about (anyone’s) health problems. But after a few months I think we’re ready with some tips and observations about multi-generational living that maintains respect for the delicate situation at hand and can give you heads up if you’re headed that direction. I also write this to tag onto a conversation Skeeter (Michael Pilarski) started years ago at a Permaculture Convergence “How do elders age in this community?”Permaculture assisted-living homes notwithstanding, (maybe there are some out there?) I’m pretty sure most folks were opting for some kind of multigenerational setup.

What we’re learning:

It’s not everyone’s dream to be cared for by family members, or if it once was, they might forget that. Nick and I didn’t even think about that possibility, it being so ideal in our minds that multiple generations share time together. We recently watched the 2005 movie ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and the scenario with a kid and his parents and four loving, interested grandparents snuggled into the living room, really struck a chord with me. Nick’s and my ideal would be similar to this, to have a cozy chair in a corner or porch and just watch the television of our children and grandchildren’s lives unfolding around us, occasionally being available to hold a baby or keep an eye on the stove. Simple, right? We forget that we’re people who are into pooling of resources and gift economy and that this scenario might be very difficult for people who value the consumer model of paying for services from professionals, or at the very least, non-family members. At times I struggle with the gift economy myself (maybe it would be less emotionally messy to know the price for something and just pay for it and be done with the transaction). So picture how messy it is for people who like the independence of paying for things when they need help, and now feel a complicated range of emotions because they’re family is doing it.

It’s hard to share some things: the kitchen. Anyone who’s lived in a group setting knows what I’m talking about. My bandwith for community living is greatly expanded if I have a separate space for my (or my nuclear family’s) approach to dirty dishes, types of food, organization, and hours of normal cooking. (Thus our own mini-kitchen at Doug & Keith’s, 120th St, Cindy’s yard, basically wherever we’ve lived). Nick and I, who have both been ‘the kitchen person’ in prior relationships have conflicted about such things, and we share similar values! Throw in a whole different set of food and kitchen norms, and that the kitchen is often the unspoken sacred power spot for matriarch, and let’s just say we visit the main kitchen, occasionally eating from it or letting Gela eat from it, occasionally bringing over our food, but we wouldn’t dare move into it. Would you pick your family members as housemates if they were magically the same age as you? How would you work out differences if you were friends instead? It’s something to think about it.

Toddlers and Elders are so amazingly compatible. Let’s be honest: half the time Gela just wants an audience for whatever she’s doing. Great-grandparents like hers sometimes just want to watch something simple and funny, ie like a toddler, in order to feel like it’s a worthwhile hour. I can’t think of a more perfect scene than my grandfather sitting on the porch as she runs to chase cats, runs back to him, runs to chase chickens, runs back to him, runs to pick up acorns or throw rocks, or whatever. She gets tired, he gets tired, they both take naps. Or, for my grandmother, who has the destination lap for Gela each morning, sometimes the simple sweet balm of snuggling with a little one provides the trust and affection that dementia in the family steals away.

Toddlers and Elders are so amazingly incompatible. Grandparents in general have a reputation for spoiling young ones. Add to that forgetfulness (about how much candy they’ve already given her, or how much television she’s watched so far today) and it’s like great-grandparents gone wild. Also, unfortunately, ‘safety first’ is no longer a motto with dementia, and mix in the perceived urgency of other tasks, and Gela’s needs occasionally sink to the bottom. So while it’s fun for Gela at their house and it’s not always the healthiest place for her to be.

Sustainable schmustainable. Well, we go (at least we bike) to the Family Dollar store daily for some urgent item: brand name cereal, industrial frozen meat things, cat treats, etc. Our (nuclear) household does things a little differently, right? Also, how hot do your grandparents keep their house? 75? 80? Frequently, when visiting my other grandparents when they were still living, I’d walk in to their apartment after a bike ride and start pouring sweat onto the floor, not able to get my jacket off fast enough. And what about turning off lights after leaving a room? I’m constantly debating as I reach for the switch: what if someone falls because I turned off this light, is it safer just to leave it on? Also, on a very depressing note: we listen to stories about who worked in the mines, when the river got dammed, how the prairie became farmland, and how great it all was. Emphasis not ours. It reminds me of a speech I heard about climate change given by a ten year old “You adults! This is all Your Fault! We kids didn’t create this mess and now we have to fix it!” (paraphrased). Sometimes, we’re that kid.

Stories about how it worked. My grandfather worked for the Soil Conservation Service and was talking about good land management long before permaculturists were. He can’t really talk about it anymore, but occasionally I’ll say words like Contours, Low-Till, or Windbreak when he asks what I’ve been up to, and he momentarily brightens. My grandmother’s stories are also sprinkled with things we find interesting: the local economy and public transit that once thrived here, the public outdoor movies on Saturday on Main Street, the line of credit with the grocery or hardware store that had been going for generations. And occasionally there’s great gems like “My mother never watered the garden. Never” (I sing a silent hurrah that maybe rain here is really year-round). One of my favorite quotes from her: “You kids don’t know. I know what it’s like to walk everywhere and grow your own food. It’s called the Depression and I’m not interested”. Good to know. We would call it a locally based economy not entirely dependent upon fossil fuels, but we are still learning I guess.

Maybe our culture doesn’t know how to let each other die. I don’t say this lightheartedly. My other grandfather was so ready for death he threatened to jump off the roof of his assisted living building. The grandfather I’m with now, he has a lot of different ways to say it. Mostly he’s confused why he’s still alive. And apologetic about still being alive, which breaks my heart. I think we should take them seriously. For me, all four of my biological grandparents have/had dementia, which if genetics play a factor, isn’t looking that good for me. So I also selfishly want our culture to start talking about this.

Our amazing technological and medical advances have given us so many things but we lack a social index for their impact on actual happiness. After seeing my other grandparents decline into death, and being in similar situation here, it is my opinion that sometimes all of our culture’s medical intervention are for Us, the young and alive who want their loved ones to still be with them, and not actually for the wishes and happiness of those in pain, confusion, and near death. We assume living longer correlates to living better but is that the case? For many people (though not all) these later years are a slow agonizing decline, with a growing feeling of inadequacy because you/I/we can no longer go to the bathroom by ourselves or change our clothes, or are spent in perpetual confusion because we can no longer remember the names of our children or partner, where we are, or what we were going to do today. My other grandmother died of dementia, and one of my last memories of her was how she was struggling to adjust a blanket that was caught on her toe. She couldn’t speak anymore, she couldn’t coordinate her muscles, she could only cry out and grimace. A family member here is in the same situation, and it’s not like this for a few days, it’s like this for months to years before death comes.

Nick and I agree that we would rather not go down this road. We intend to set some kind of bar for our mental capabilities, and then if we ever sink below that we hope the other person will ‘off’ us. Hemlock maybe? Death with Dignity legislation isn’t a thing here, but in Washington it is. Even then, the patient asking for it needs to be deemed competent and a doctor needs to think that they’ll probably die within 6 months anyway. From what I’ve seen of dementia it for sure doesn’t work like that. This means that I, when I’m competent now, I can’t say “I don’t want to be alive if I don’t remember who my daughter is” and when that time comes no one can legally help me do it. It just seems wrong. Also, not very sustainable. If I could be dead and composting on the one hand, or alive and hanging on by toiletry aids, pain killers, and a ton of gadgets to keep me from falling on the other hand, I would rather be compost.

While our elders may not be physically capable of contributing as they once did, we can look to them for what they can share with us, history, knowledge, intergenerational companionship, and support. We hope in our ideal world to figure this out so when we are aging and Gela is forced to consider these questions that we have laid some groundwork for her to build upon.

The importance of keeping things in perspective. Sometimes it’s hard, or sad, or crazy, or precious. Gela helps, or sometimes she’s a toddler and in her own rough mood, and doesn’t help. My favorite strategy right now is just to listen to the news (Democracy Now) just to keep whatever minute struggles we have within a greater perspective. There’s a lot of worries and work right now, and a family’s occasional growing/death pains are like the Hobbits fighting about gardening techniques as Mordor continues to rise. Sometimes, figuring out how all of our family can live with dignity is the most important thing, even politically, and sometimes, figuring out how we can help the struggle of the rest of the world to live in dignity, well that’s also important.

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