When Caregivers Strike

My grandmother Ellen Marie Stradal, Kansas, circa 1933

We’re born in diapers and we die in diapers.” This is what my grandpa Rusty told my mom, aunt, grandma and me as we hovered over his deathbed.

“You four look like a buncha buzzards waitin’ to finish me off,” he barked. Then, more tenderly, “Come here, Ellen.” 

My grandma climbed into bed with him. The 250 lb. former cattle hand, whittled down to 150 by cancer, spooned her like they were teenagers.

His nose burrowed in her thick, coarse, short white hair, his arm pulling her close. I’ll never forget that tableau. Man and wife. Grandpa Rusty still a man, even if he was wearing a diaper and will be gone in three days.

Men are men until they are no more.

My grandma, at 99, begins her slow descent. She’s in diapers now. I helped put them on her last night. Helped Lola, one of her caregivers, transfer her from her wheelchair into her hospital bed.

She’s still at home and comfortable. She goes in and out a bit and wants to control everything, which can be frustrating.

“Shannon? Are you going to bed? Where will you sleep? In the den? With me? Are you leaving? You should go to bed.”

“Shannon, are you eating? If you open the refrigerator, be sure to close it. Did you close it? Is it closed? Why do I hear the refrigerator humming like it’s open? Are you still eating?”

I’m impatient. Get me back to my technology. My Facebook. My Twitter. My blog. My instant gratification.

Get me back to sunshine and exercise and dancing and shopping and watching my kids in a play.

Get me back to party throwing, chicken roasting, gin tippling, minivan racing. Get me out of the tiny world of a diminishing life.

Then there’s Lola, the caretaker.

Lola is stunning. She’s 60 but looks 45. She’s a head turner. Full lips, almond shaped eyes, perfect hair and make-up and a trim physique.

She cares for my grandma six days a week. How do you do this? I want to ask. You could still have a man, you could travel, you could do any number of things with your looks and personality and joie de vivre.

But she brings light to my grandma’s darkening world and lets the rest of us feel good about resuming our lives, because we know grandma’s in loving hands.

I lack humility.

I’m young enough to think I’ll live forever. Eager to devour more life. I have the eye of the tiger. I’m still learning, meeting new people, forging new connections.

But when I watch Lola handle my grandmother with profound patience and grace it knocks me flat.

There are angels among us.

10 thoughts on “When Caregivers Strike”

    1. We’ve had three deaths in the last year and a half and while it’s been an incredible learning experience there is a part of me that wants to run off to the circus. I could be the bearded lady.

  1. Gosh, it’s so humbling being around death. I was with my grandmother when she died — at 99 — she had immense energy right up until the end — and I found being with her when she died, paradoxically so life-enhancing. Confronting the whole scary shebang of mortality and the fact that we are all headed to the same place. Yowza.

  2. I’m lucky enough to work with seniors (my oldest client was 115 – she doesn’t look a day over 70). Death and dying are a part of life, and it’s scary sh!t that makes us want to run screaming. It’s particularly scary when we see our loved ones diminishing in their capacities and are not who we remember them to be (strong, able-bodied, in control of their bladders) and realize we are headed down the same, unavoidable road. So we hide behind our technology, and go to the gym, and eat right, and say, that’s not going to be me. But it is us, the only choice we have is how we confront what is staring us in the face. Your grandparents offer you two gifts – how to live, and how to die.


    1. Caryl — I love that last quote. It’s so true. This last year and a half we’ve lost three elders, my grandma is the fourth elder I’ve watched getting ready to leave us. It’s humbling to say the least and she’s dealing with it with such great dignity. I think working with children and elders are the most under-appreciated and important jobs. For the people who do it well this work is nothing less than a divine calling.

      1. I love my job. It’s scary and crazy and wild. My ‘people’ (clients) make the job doable.

        I’m sorry for your losses. We lost our last elder and his partner a few months ago. Our next generation elders are in their 60s.


  3. I’m a caregiver, but not to the extent Lola is. My father-in-law had an aneurysm almost 3 years ago and we moved in with him because his short-term memory is gone. THANK GOD he can physically care for himself (he just chooses not to/forgets to/doesn’t do it out of spite when we ask him to) – so I tip my hat heartily to folks who go to the extent Lola does. I honestly don’t know how they do it because what we do is challenging enough. It’s a divine calling, as you said.

    What a beautiful picture of your grandmother!

    1. Hi Mrs. Jen B — I hear you. And what a great daughter-in-law you are to take care of your father-in-law. There should be a caregiving Oscars night, with limos, champagne and free kisses from Jake Gyllenhal.

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