What I learned when I moved in with my grandmother during the pandemic
Caring for my grandmother taught me to slow down, find peace and enjoy the small things
This First Person column is written by Colin Smith, a Calgary resident who moved in with his grandmother during the pandemic. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
People were told not to visit their grandparents during the pandemic but I moved in with mine. We might make for an odd pair of housemates but we have found our own form of comfort and peace during this turbulent time.
The idea came in January 2020 when I found myself house sitting for my grandmother, Martha Joan Willis, as she recovered from a hip replacement in a temporary care home. At 92, with mild dementia and vertigo, she had reached the end of independent living.
At the same time, major chapters of my life had come to a close. I was in my early 30s and I had recently left behind the business I poured my heart into for seven years. My long-term relationship fell apart shortly after. House sitting was a temporary win-win as I rearranged the shards of my life and Martha sorted hers.
It was nostalgic returning to my grandmother's home. I lived here when I was a young child after my parents split up. Gma, as I call her, and I have been super close ever since.
As Gma recovered her mobility in hospital, I visited regularly. We would play cards in the lobby while the news droned on the TV with images of people in hazmat suits concerned about a virus infecting cruise ships.
On her birthday in early March, she was allowed to go home under close supervision. It was supposed to be temporary with extra support from our family until a long-term care spot could be arranged. But when Calgary entered a state of emergency days later, we went into lockdown as housemates and stayed that way ever since.
As the virus brought the world to a halt, my family decided to pause the planned home care and pledged to care for her the best we could. I would be the linchpin managing the housekeeping and cooking. Turns out, she is pretty easy to care for. She sleeps over 16 hours a day, says little but smiles when waited on.
"You don't need much when you are almost 100," she often says with a smile.
Over the past two years, I have grown into the role of a caregiver. We kick it, 94-year-old style. We eat good food, lots of snacks, take naps, and watch Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! religiously.
For my Gma, routine reigns and every day is like the last — usually to the minute. Awake at 8 a.m. Breakfast in bed. Coffee, newspaper and an egg on toast. Back to sleep until noon. Lunch at 12:30 p.m. Nap time at 1:45 sharp. Up at 3:55 to watch the sport of the season with a glass of wine. News at 6 p.m. Whiskey at 9:30. Bedtime at 10:15. Repeat.
At first, I thought this predictable routine would give me space to fit in a new work-from-home job as I was grasping for some sense of normalcy in the form of work. But after a year of trying to balance caregiving and working virtually from my grandmother's basement, I was getting overwhelmed.
One day, as I left my Gma alone in front of the TV to attend yet another soul-starving Zoom meeting, I realized the stress and disconnection from Gma wasn't worth it. Being present for Gma and myself was so much more important than trying to start a new career in a time when the future is so uncertain. Thankfully, living with Gma during a pandemic is not expensive.
So with great resistance from my ego, I eventually let go of it all — the work, expectations, money and centred my focus on caring for my Gma and myself — and that's where I found the light in the darkness of the pandemic.
Caring for my grandmother challenged me to slow down to a natural rhythm of life. I returned to the patterns of the moon, the pace of seasons, and the magic in the everyday moments. I found peace in bringing Gma's garden back to beauty and walking her former routes through Nose Hill, a local wildland park. This grounded me with appreciation for a simpler, slower pace of life and calmed my ambitions for success and material wealth. More soul, less ego.
I've had a lot of help from family members. Even so, there may come a time when I am not able to provide the care and attention my grandmother needs. I plan on being by her side as long as I can.
I hope that in sharing my story, I can inspire others to welcome elder care into their lives. That isn't always possible or easy, though common throughout history and cultures. But choices that feel like sacrifices can blossom into gifts, making us stronger and healthier in the process.
This month, the CBC team in Alberta focused on family caregivers and the challenge Alberta faces reforming care for the frail and elderly. Visit cbc.ca/familycare to read more.
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