By Dan Greenblatt
For some grandparents, retirement is all about spending more time with the grandkids, teaching them how to ride a bike or cast a fly rod. My grandfather—I called him "Papa"—had more serious lessons in mind. The hours that I spent with Papa as a young boy generally involved an amateur chemistry set. Through him, I was introduced to the properties of the various elements: hydrogen, helium, oxygen and all the rest. I loved my visits to Papa's house and took them for granted, assuming that playing with test tubes was what all kids did with their grandfathers. A pharmaceutical chemist by training, Papa relished the opportunity to share his trade with me. He didn't take anything for granted. He was a child of the Depression who saved everything, including a few "big kid" science kits that would have made Dr. Frankenstein proud.
When I was 15, Papa was diagnosed with Alzheimer's—a disease chemistry experiments have yet to cure. His immediate response was to turn to the scientific journals he'd subscribed to for years in search of treatments. But all too soon, this independent alpha male was depending on others to bathe, dress and spoon feed him. A decade after his diagnosis, the Cole Porter melodies he loved and still hummed on occasion were the only audible evidence that his mind was still at work. The music animated an increasingly inanimate man who somehow managed the syncopated rhythms and diminished intervals when he could no longer speak. We were watching a scientist, who had devoted his life to saving humanity, drift from the physical world he had once loved to study. But his rendition of "Let's Misbehave," and that gorilla grip he still used to grasp our hands tight as a vise, helped my family cope.
The Demands of Eldercare
My grandfather had saved and invested his money conservatively, giving our family the wherewithal to hire full-time caregivers. They channeled his wants and needs better than anyone else could—in part because they were skilled professionals, but also because of the strong bond they had formed with the man who would never know their names. They always made sure that he was in attendance at important gatherings. Every time they brought him to a family wedding or Bar Mitzvah, it was as if they were delivering the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle—the toucan's yellow bill that completes the jungle scene.
"I caught a glimpse of what my later years could look like as I navigated Papa's living space, retrofitted with wheelchair ramps."
Our family was there for him as well. We rallied to support our patriarch just as he had supported his own mother when she began to show symptoms of Alzheimer's. My mother and uncles picked their visiting days. My siblings, cousins and I would join when we could—though in those visits, we came to feel like vaudevillians, pulling stunts just to get Papa to make eye contact.
Each time I visited him near the end of his life, I was shaken by the intense demands of eldercare, watching his tireless, devoted caregivers handle his needs with grace and skill. I also caught a glimpse of what my later years could look like as I navigated Papa's living space, retrofitted with wheelchair ramps and bedside guardrails. I'd always leave hoping I would never need the same care.
A Relative Newcomer to Mourning
Those guardrails came down when he passed away. We buried him under a baking July sun, each of the bereaved taking a turn with the shovel. A relative newcomer to the rituals of mourning, I thought it crude at first to be hurling the rocky earth onto his beautifully polished cherry wood coffin. But later the contrast seemed fitting: My grandfather was a charming but prickly soul who had gone to work every day with the mission of ridding the world of some of its ugliest diseases.
As the eulogists, one by one, ticked off their individual laundry lists of his eccentricities, we all marveled at his bedrock sense of purpose and endless confidence in everything he did. They weren't describing the man he had become during those years of diminishing awareness. There was barely enough time to describe what he had accomplished before Alzheimer's struck. The funeral was a stark reminder that I knew him better as a sick man than as the overachiever he had been for the great majority of his life.
Building My Safety Net
"When it was time to make my first IRA contribution, the money I socked away felt like a safety net that might one day help my loved ones take care of me."
Memories of his last years stayed with me as I grew into young adulthood and began to gain financial independence. When it was time to make my first IRA contribution, the money I socked away felt less like dollars and cents and more like a safety net that might one day help my loved ones take care of me. Even as an elderly, speechless man, Papa had found a way to teach me important lessons—about the necessity of preparing for the unknown, and the grace of letting others care for you when you can no longer care for yourself.
Though his love of chemistry didn't rub off on me, his commitment to living an independent financial life is a lesson I won't forget. We'll never know which memories Papa held onto the longest. But I like to think that among them was an image of the two of us, huddled over test tubes brimming with the building blocks of life.
Dan Greenblatt works in the financial services industry. He dedicates this article to the memory of his grandfather—and to all researchers working toward a cure for Alzheimer's.
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