Although my grandmother has passed away now, caring for her was one of the most demanding, yet most satisfying experiences of my life. Gran came to live with me for two years when she got fed up of all of her daughters-in-law squabbling amongst themselves. I think part of her also enjoyed the company of young people and she wanted a change.
The first change that I had to make was cooking regularly and regular mealtimes. Previously it was just me and hubby and we ate when and what we felt like, if at all at home. With an elderly person at home we had to have three set mealtimes and sensible food. This was good preparation for better habits for when we had children.
Another change in our lives was the amount of visitors that came traipsing through our doors. The whole family had to come to our home to visit their mum. As she was well-known in the community, we also had all sorts of people we didn’t know coming to visit at all sorts of times (sitting with her late into the night). This taught me a lot about taking care of guests, being gracious when you didn’t want to be and providing for guests despite an almost empty kitchen. An aspect of this I also loved was the control it gave me over my family – whether you liked me or not, you still have to come to my house to see your mum/mother-in-law/gran.
One of the things I found much harder was my grandmother’s dependence. She suffered from severe and crippling rheumatoid-arthritis, which meant that I had to help her with getting her bath ready, bringing her meals to her, and smaller tasks like cutting her nails or washing her walking stick (don’t ask me why!). I was wary of leaving her alone for long and this also curtailed my freedom somewhat. A typical afternoon out would begin with me telling her I wanted to go out and being called back from the door half-a-dozen times to ask me a question, to remind me of something, to make her a cup of tea before I went. This was usually coupled with Little Lady, who was a baby at the time, dirtying her nappy as we were finally about to step out the door.
There were also the good things. I spent many hours listening to my gran reminisce. I learnt so much about my family, my roots and about the lessons that life brings. I and my husband gained the respect and friendship of my entire family which have stayed with us until today.
I also learnt some lessons. I learnt what it is to be elderly, in pain and the torture of being dependent on others after a lifetime of being strong, competent and hard-working. I learnt what it is to have a sharp, lucid mind trapped inside a body that will not do what you tell it. I was also reminded by living with my gran that elderly people, do still have a sense of humour, being elderly does not take away your sense of appreciation for things that are good or beautiful.
The biggest lesson I learnt was to ask for help and to take it where offered. The care of each of us is the job of our community and family, as it is our job to care for our family and community. I asked my sisters to help with shopping for things Gran needed. My husband made her breakfast and my mum made lunch which dad brought round. The lady who was lodging with us at the time made her afternoon tea everyday.
Although our elders have rights over us to take care of them without any expectation of having to pay recompense, people also like to feel useful. I use to give my Gran something to do everyday which made her feel like she was helping and contributing – shelling peas for dinner, watching the sleeping baby, grabbing small children around the neck with her walking cane (I’m not making this up, all of my cousins and also my kids used to get this for trying to steal her cane and run away with it). When I was expecting Little Lady, I used to leave her a pomegranate every day which she would open and de-seed for me ready for when I came back from work
Traditionally the elderly lived with their children until they passed away. This taught us humility and compassion and reminded us that any one of us could be in that position with nothing to assist us but sabr (patience) one day. I think we are in loss if we have changed the way we live so much that we are unable to foresee this and have to learn it the hard way.
I strongly believe that having an elderly person in your home brings the blessings of Allah, or barakah, into that home. For us these included finding our roots, the lessons that experience brings and the barakah that guests bring into a home.