Elderly grandparents and young children
June 13, 2012 8:19 PM   Subscribe

How do I best manage a visit to my elderly/dying grandparents with my young children?

I will be traveling cross-country with my husband and three young children to visit my elderly grandparents (88 and 90 - my childrens' great-grandparents), who are not in good health. My grandmother will, in fact, be going into major surgery the day we are scheduled to leave their town. It will be difficult enough for me to manage what will most likely be saying goodbye to my grandparents. How do I make this OK, and maybe memorable, for my kids, my grandparents, and my dad (who will also be there)?

My children are almost 9, 5.5, and 17 months. The older two have met my grandparents, though my 5-year-old doesn't remember it. My grandparents have never met the baby, though they have seen pictures and I've talked with my grandmother on the phone. My grandfather suffers from dementia, with occasional periods of clarity.

I know we want to take lots of photos - though the reason my grandmother is having surgery has caused some dis-figuration of her face and I want to be sensitive to that - and just enjoy the time, but is there anything else we should do/say/arrange? How do I say goodbye without actually saying goodbye? Please, hivemind, help me make this visit OK for everyone involved.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse to Human Relations (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Honesty is the best policy, especially with emotions! And, frankly, these situations can be pretty uncomfortable for everyone involved. That's OK, too. And it's even something you can be fairly honest about. Even tho your kids are young, I think you can share some feels with them, let them in on it all. that's the best way to make it a shared experience, and a learning experience. Kids have a way of navigating through this stuff. You may even learn something from them!
posted by Salvatorparadise at 9:25 PM on June 13, 2012

Best answer: I agree that honesty is the best policy. I'm not a parent, but I think talking about why you're going on the trip in simple terms is a great idea. Something like "I'm excited to see my grandparents, your great grandparents. We don't get to see them very much so this is special. I know they'll be really happy to see you again, too." Try not to fret too much about how you handle it. Focus on how wonderful it is you've had so long with them and that you get to introduce them to the next generation, which is really special and something I think all of us who've had greats appreciate.

Obviously, each child's needs will be different... but just don't be shy. If your toddler reacts with fear to grandma's ouchie face, that's ok.

In addition, I think a little frank talk about what to do with old people when you're very young might be good for your eldest. I remember being trotted around to visit elderly friends of my grandmother as a kid, people in hospice or in homes, and feeling really awkward, like a zoo animal, just because I didn't know what they were enjoying so much about my visit. They didn't even know me. And my own great grandma was a space alien to me, practically. Let your 8 year old know that GreatGran and Papa are tired but full of love for their families, and that they would love to hear them tell all about themselves, if that's what you think is true. Encourage him or her in any way you think right not to be shy, to ask questions if they choose.

You could use props... have the kids make something along the journey to give as gifts, which might spark up some connection in the delivery, some sense of purpose for them, since mourning in advance isn't one kids are really cut out for.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:23 PM on June 13, 2012

Best answer: Bring some activities for the kids. My daughter was 5 when we visited her dying great grandma, but she enjoyed making pipe-cleaner bracelets for her, along with other crafts.

Depending on how alert the great grandparents are, have some "interview" questions the kids can ask about growing up in the 30s/40s ... just a few. This lets the older person reminisce about better days and the child can learn a lot. People that aren't able to physically move around still enjoy conversation!

Rehearse some songs for the kids ... Itsy Bitsy Spider, I'm a Little Teapot ... sometimes the energy and life that a child brings into the room is contagious!

Find out what little items the grandparents need and go on a family shopping trip. Assemble a gift basket. Little things, like soft slippers, are practical and don't consume a lot of space.

Flowers! Bring some flowers. Have the kids help you pick them out.

Your 9-year old could read to them.

If you're crafty, do a piece of collage artwork where you trace the hands of each generation.

Take a multi-generational photo! I really wish that I had done more multi-generational photos while my grandparents were still alive. I just always thought they'd be around ....
posted by Ostara at 11:04 PM on June 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think that what you are doing is a wonderful thing, both for your grands and for the kids. Too often children are surrounded only by peers and life really does consist of more people than that.
I think the older kids just need to be told what is really happening as far as illnesses. And it would be nice if you could show the kids pictures of their grandparents at various times in life to put it in perspective.
When my now 22 year old daughter was 3 I took her to see her dying grandfather. She climbed up on his hospital bed and spent hours talking to him while nurses did their jobs around her. It is one of her earliest memories and she was one of her grandfather's last memories.
posted by Isadorady at 11:08 PM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I want to speak to your personal discomfort. Your question touched me, and I'm pretty sure my Grandma wants me to speak out here....

It's so lovely you are visiting. The rest is noise.


The connections you make on your trip will last forever, even for your 17th month old.

There is a lot of love here, and our grandparents and great grandparents are always present in our lives.


When a friend was dying of cancer, our mutual friends did interview that friend and prompted them to tell great stories about their lives to be recorded for posterity. This dying friend was an especially great storyteller, so this might not work for you.

I think it is enough if you all show up, everyone bonds, and you fill in the stories later. Really.

posted by jbenben at 11:48 PM on June 13, 2012

Are there any games they can play together? When we used to visit my dad, my kids would play dominos or snap with him, which they all enjoyed and didn't really require anyone to make awkward conversation.
posted by crocomancer at 4:19 AM on June 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm sure you've thought about this, but one thing to keep in mind with respect to the youngest is that toddlers can be hard work around the terminally ill. We had an 18 month old when my mother was in the last stages of cancer, and we found that -- although she really loved to see him and it was great for her to be able to have some time around him -- we had to be careful to limit the amount of time he was around. We ran into a few issues:

1. The language barrier can be tricky. My son was just old enough to pick up on the fact that the adults were behaving weirdly and that there was tension in the house, but not old enough to talk to about it. This got him upset sometimes and he needed breaks from time to time, something to give him a sense of normalcy. If there's any tension around your grandparents (e.g., regarding the upcoming surgery) you may need to manage this issue with your youngest too.

2. The energy that small kids have can be a positive, but we found that at times it really exhausted mum. 18 months was old enough to be running around like a little nutcase, which was totally cute, but taxing. If your grandparents are really that ill, you'll probably need to make sure that they don't get overwhelmed. Be prepared to give *them* breaks. Especially given the dementia issue you've referred to. I found that in those times when mum got disoriented it was not good for her to have a little kid around, because he made it harder for her to get her focus back.

3. Be even more cautious than usual about kids and diseases when they're around your grandparents. We had a bit of a problem with my son picking up conjunctivitis and passing it on to mum before anyone had even noticed he had it. If there's any sense that your grandparents' immune systems may be compromised then it's best to take a lot of care.

As I say, I imagine this is all stuff that you've probably thought about. Still, I do wish I'd thought all the detail through more clearly myself before I found myself having to work it out on the fly. In any case, toddler management issues notwithstanding, I think it's absolutely worth it both for the grandparents and the child. It's just that there can be a lot of work involved at your end, and a bit of pragmatism goes a long way. And as others have said, the simple fact that you're there and the kids are there too will mean a lot to your dad and grandparents.
posted by mixing at 5:37 AM on June 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Don't be afraid to say everything you want to say to your grandparents. Dying is a part of life. Tell them how much you love them, tell them how much they've meant to you, share your fondest memories and if they're both freaked out about stuff, talk about that. Be completely open.

If you can manage it, have your partner corral the kids for you. Your grandparents will LOVE seeing the kiddos, but may tire easily, also your kids will be overstimulated from travel and new surroundings.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:01 AM on June 14, 2012

Best answer: Ruthless Bunny has the answer. Don't hide grandma and grandpa from the kids, but allow yourself some time alone with them too.

My great grandma died when I was about 9, I think. I have great memories of her, both as the crusty old broad who refused to stop taking the "streetcar" (bus) until she physically couldn't, who always had Kraft caramels in a dish at her tiny apartment, and also of her in her dying months. My mother forced me to go into her sickroom and talk to her alone, and I was terrified. But I also cherish that memory, because it was probably the only time we ever got to have a one on one conversation.

Same with my grandfather. He had some cancer that took an eye and messed up his face pretty badly. He hated it, but he liked seeing the family more. He wore a pirate patch for a while (to his, and the younger kids delight) and then had one of the lenses of his glasses frosted. You could hardly tell he was disfigured. Unfortunately, that side of the family is a little (lot) messed up about death, and I never knew that he had (as they say) taken to his bed and was dying. I am a little disappointed that I didn't get to visit him during that time, as sad as it might have been.

Lessons: expose the kids to it. Let them (or even gently force them to) experience the depth and breadth of life. And in addition to pictures, take video if you can. I've forgotten the voices of some of my departed relatives, and I'm very sad about that.
posted by gjc at 6:40 AM on June 14, 2012

Best answer: My son is fifteen months old and my grandfather is currently dying. I've been wracking my brain with very similar questions. All I have to offer is that when I talk with the rest of the family, they tell me how very much it means to them that I bring the baby up for a visit and even just a ten minute visit makes their whole *week.*

Your being there is the best gift you can give them right now. Take the rest as it comes. As for photos, I would recommend just taking a few candids. Don't try to make it too formal or posed - just a few snaps for them to be able to see that they were there and spent time with their great-grandparents. I've gotten some pretty wonderful shots just with my iPhone and it felt more comfortable to me than dragging out a big camera.

For the older kiddos... I don't have anything to add that other people haven't said already. Don't hide what's happening from them. Answer questions and accept that it's sad, but don't make it into something to be *afraid* of.
posted by sonika at 6:56 AM on June 14, 2012

You've got to distinguish your experience and that of your children here. They will not think of this as last time I'll see these people I've loved all my life, you will. So you will assign much greater importance to everything than they will.

Between the ages of 4-8 I remember visiting my great grandmother a couple of times a year. She was in her mid/late 80s at the time and was living alone. Her husband and her 3 children had passed away at that point and my mother and my aunt were taking it in turns to visit her so she'd not be alone all year round.

The only people to share these memories with now are my brother, my cousin and my auntie...even though we hardly ever met at my great grandmother's house as children it turns out that cousin and I found the same things memorable and after my mother passed away my auntie is happy to fill in the gaps.

What I remember about these trips is the journey (I used to get horribly car sick and it was a long drive). And then there are specific things we did at her house we couldn't do at home like loving her dog, of standing in her kitchen for what felt like a very long time looking up on the wall waiting for the cuckoo to come out of the cuckoo clock again, of playing simple board games with her and her always cheating so there'd be no loser even though my brother and I wanted to be ruthless and would not have minded beating each other or her...as well as memories of her sweet tooth and her barricading herself into her house and her bedroom at night due to her growing paranoia. My mother found this distressing but as young children we did not, it just added to the 'strange, different place and unusual stuff happening' feel of the visits.

Even events that would be very upsetting to an adult did not blight the visit for us. For example I remember her 85th birthday celebration. The news that one of her brothers had just passed away in hospital reached us as we'd gathered to share the birthday cake. I had little concept of what that meant, just a sense that people were shocked and sad in varying degrees, that she was crying for a while and that she held me on her lap for a long time because it seemed to comfort her. There is a picture of that scene and when I look at it now I can see how much pain she was in. At the time I just understood she was sad and that it was important we be nice to her to cheer her up.

What I am trying to say is that you do not need to do anything different on this visit. They will take away good memories of their time at great grandparents' house and their memories of things you'll find upsetting will be different to yours, and probably not sad.

The only thing I would say is to manage expectations a bit. About how your grandparents are very old and quite fragile and can get hurt easily if we're too boisterous, about the fact that they may be forgetful (to varying degrees) and may ask the same question many times and you just have to be patient and keep answering it and how life was very different when they were children so they may not know about some gadget your children may mention or have different ideas about wasting things etc.

And last point - look at old photo albums with them. That normally gets people to recall and share memories. If your older children are up for that include them, if not just get your father to share this you and your great grandparents. To make time for this kind of thing get your husband to take some or all of the children out for a while every now and then. For the same reason - the trip is much more emotional for you than it will be for them and you may wish to do things with your grandparents that have little meaning to your young children.
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:19 AM on June 14, 2012

Response by poster: So much great support and input here - thank you. Neither of my grandparents is actively dying, for want of a better description. They are just elderly (88 and 90) and in declining health. I was being realistic in my assessment that I probably won't see them again. But there were no hospital beds involved in our visit, nothing terribly unusual or scary for the kids to see. My grandmother had surgery the day we left town, and it went very, very well. She went into it in good spirits, with all her kids there, and is recovering as well as anyone could want.

The visit was lovely. My grandparents live in a small condo, so we stayed in a hotel and visited for several hours each day, had dinner with various family, and just hung out together. My grandmother, in particular, tired easily, but she happily sat in her favorite spot and just watched the kids play. As my dad joked, when it got to be a bit much for either grandma or grandpa, they could turn down their hearing aids and close their eyes.

We didn't do a lot of photos, because my grandmother was uncomfortable about her appearance. But I did make sure to get candid photos, especially a couple of just her and my youngest, in ways that weren't upsetting to her. I got some quiet moments with my grandmother (grandpa is kind of out of it, but the kids cracked him up, which was great). And my father was so beyond thrilled that we were there, it was almost overwhelming. I feel like, if I don't get to see them again, it'll be OK. It'll all be OK.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 2:29 PM on July 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

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