I became a father at 21 and I knew that if I was going to “make it,” I had to rely on my family for help. My daughter’s mother and I split up early, and I went back to my childhood home, where my mother and great-aunt Lorraine lived. Lorraine — or Rainy, as we called her — was in her eighties and in frail health. Her memory had started to go. She wouldn’t eat. I was barely hacking it as a father, so I certainly didn’t feel capable of also caring for elders.
It was a delicate balancing act, and I was teetering like a drunk on a tightrope. I had been raised by my mother and my grandmother, who had died some months before my daughter was born. When I was in junior high, the recently widowed Rainy — my grandmother’s youngest sister – came to live with us. She helped to raise me and my mother before me, but had never been blessed with children of her own.
Still, Rainy and Madison took to each other immediately. Despite what age had taken from her, Rainy’s indelible charm remained. She and my daughter were fast friends.
Once, during a moment of clarity, Rainy asked, “Why don’t you let me watch the baby while you do all the other stuff you have to do?” To be honest, I didn’t trust her to be able to care for Madison while I was off doing laundry or making dinner or any of the other dozen things I had to do. Whatever excuse I offered in reply was met with a dismissive, almost put-upon expression and the retort, “I took care of you and your mother as babies; I think I know a thing or two about it.”
This conversation happened over and over again, until finally — when Madison was a little older — I took Rainy up on her offer. Amazingly — at least to me — she was a natural. She could keep Madison entertained, spending hours playing the tedious games infants enjoy. As Madison got older, Rainy was able to handle more extended periods of watching my daughter. As Rainy got older, her health worsening, Madison was able to keep an eye on her, too.
Getting Rainy to eat was always a challenge. I would coax, implore, and outright yell sometimes in order to get her to eat. Yet once Madison — always a picky eater — said she wouldn’t eat unless Rainy ate, Rainy finished all her meals.
Caring for elders and children can be easier if you remember that your elder is not a child. The infirmed elderly often struggle with finding a sense of purpose, because they often feel like a burden on the younger family. By encouraging Rainy to help with Madison, it filled her last years with a renewed sense of purpose. Madison and I were both lucky to have her.
Are you caring for older relatives while raising children? What do you find to be most rewarding about it? What’s most challenging?