10,000 hours in the octogenarian trenches


Cute and cuddly, old and wrinkly. Appearance aside, these two people are nothing alike.

Ten thousand hours. That’s supposedly the amount of time you have to spend at something to master it.

I’d never claim to be a caregiving master, but even if I’ve only spent 16 percent of my time over the last eight years taking care of Grandma, I’ve racked up enough hours to know something. So to all of you who think caring for old people is like taking care of children, I’m here to say unequivocally that the two are nothing alike.

These are a few of my observations:

Childhood is finite — old age can go on indefinitely

It seems like yesterday my youngest daughter was that little swinging cherub. Now she’s a high school graduate and soon-to-be college student who’s taking a giant leap toward adulthood. I’ll continue to support her in every way I can just as I do my adult daughters, but she’ll no longer be a day-to-day responsibility. I have a lot of life left to live, but when I contemplate my future, there’s always a giant question mark hanging over me: How long will Grandma live? Considering her caregivers’ vague predictions, I might as well ask my Magic 8 Ball …

Children learn new skills — old people forget theirs

Shoe tying. Handwriting. Reading. It’s amazing to watch children acquire the skills adults take for granted. And it’s just as disheartening to realize Grandma no longer knows how to change a lightbulb or ask for a paper towel by name. Her hospice nurse says dementia may eventually rob her of her ability to feed herself. The subject of knowing which tasks she’s genuinely forgotten and which ones she just prefers not to do warrants an entire post.

Children accept parental authority — old people resent being told what to do

Of course children don’t always accept their parents’ directives, but as a mother of three I can say for the most part, they do. Grandma, on the other hand, fights me every step of the way. Whether I insist on organizing her food, giving her baths, or removing her shoes in bed, she always has an excuse for why she does it her way. You can’t put an 89-year-old dementia patient on time out, and reasoning with her is an exercise in futility. So I choose my battles, accept help from hospice, and check her hiding places when the pantry shelves mysteriously empty overnight.

Children grow more self sufficient — old people grow more helpless

Along with the new skills they acquire, children also typically grow taller, stronger and faster. At the other end of the spectrum, everything’s getting harder for Grandma. Shelves are higher. Room light is dimmer. Sometimes it seems as if her own personal gravitational field is pinning her to the bed and preventing her from standing up.

Children are flexible — old people hate change

Children don’t have much choice when it comes to accepting change. Their bodies grow, they advance in school, and each subsequent grade provides opportunities to play new sports, meet new friends and acquire new knowledge. Grandma eschews change with a passion. Whether it’s fear or stubbornness or plain old inertia, something compels her to wear clothes from the 60s, eat food from the 70s and reminisce about events that happened so long ago nobody else is alive to corroborate her accounts. Every time I find myself favoring the old and comfortable, I intentionally mix things up to immunize myself from the dreaded fate of being too set in my ways.

Despite their differences, I’ve come to realize there’s one major similarity between the very young and the extremely old: they both need the safety net that a loving family or a supportive community provides. And since I’m growing older along with everyone else, it’s not just altruism that fuels my hope for better eldercare options in the future. After all, there may not be a cranky but devoted granddaughter to prevent me from falling through the cracks.


12 thoughts on “10,000 hours in the octogenarian trenches

  1. Well said. I remember the time I spent taking care of my mom before she passed on. It was one of the hardest and simultaneously most rewarding times of my life. But it’s nothing like caring for a baby. Children hit landmarks of independence. Old people are like a tennis ball bouncing down a staircase . . . a constant up and down, with the downs and ups just a little lower overall as the process continues. And I could never have imagined how long that staircase was to the bottom.

    Your grandma is lucky to have you. All the best to both of you.

    • That’s a great analogy! Grandma definitely goes back and forth … Thanks for reminding me to appreciate this time. I know it won’t last forever, even though there are days I’m absolutely sure it will. 🙂

      • I get it. And Mom’s last three months were the longest ten years of my life. One day she was imminently dying, and the next she was ready to go home. It’s one heck of an exhausting roller coaster. I’ll be pulling for you.

  2. Somehow I missed this post, but now I am seeing you in my reader again. I’m glad you are still there!
    It is one of the hardest things, the difference between the wonder of watching your children gain strength and intelligence and the despair of watching your elders lose both. I think it is best to dwell on current comfort and past memories at this point. Hard to remember sometimes.

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