My grandfather is getting old and is slowing down physically and mentally. He used to have such a booming presence, and now he seems shrunken and weak in his chair. I know it pains him to be so trapped in himself like that. I know he wants to be the leader of the family again. I hate how everyone talks down to him, unintentionally, of course; even I can't deny he gets confused sometimes. I want him to know how proud I am of him, how much I love him, how much I worry about him. I cry after every get-together; it's so hard to watch. My anxiety comes out most when I think about things like this. God is my only comfort, but even with Him I feel confused, and that bothers me too. I know it all makes sense somehow, and God is in control...but why is all this fair? I know it's the cycle of life...I know I'm not the first kid to worry about her grandfather...but I’m scared. Please help.
Lauren Roth's Answer
It’s scary when the strong presences in our lives become weaker, and “go the way of all flesh.” Remember the second law of thermodynamics from physics: things of this physical world inevitably go towards entropy—towards greater disorder. Physical systems inevitably break down. Your grandfather’s physical and mental decline is part of the natural order of things.
When my friend lost her father, she told me, “Of course I miss him. I miss him every day. But we had a wonderful life together. And that is a life well-lived.” Nobody lives forever and no state of being lasts forever, even though we want it to. The question is: what do we do with the time we have?
I think you should tell your grandfather everything you want to say. Tell him all the points you mentioned in your question: tell him how and why you are proud of him, tell him how much you love him, tell him you know he doesn’t feel as strong as he did before, but that you still respect him the same as you did before. Whether he understands what you’re telling him or not, you’ll feel better for having said it out loud to him.
In terms of other people talking down to him: there isn’t much you can do about that. You can, respectfully, tell family members, “I love grandpa so much. I know he’s not as lucid as he once was, but I think we should give him lots of respect, to help him preserve his self-respect.” You can tell them that. And then you will have done what you could do. Because your controlling other people’s actions just doesn’t work. You may as well tell them, because it might make a difference, but don’t be disappointed if they don’t comply with your wishes and requests.
What you can control is this: you be respectful towards him. You will be doing the right thing, you will be helping him preserve his self-respect, and you might even inspire other people in your family to follow suit.
I was really close to all my grandparents, and I miss every one of them now that they have passed away. One of my grandmothers had dementia at the end of her life. It was really hard; I understand what you’re going through. In a certain sense, it was easier for me when she passed away than when she was alive and not lucid, because after her passing, I felt as though I could talk to her and she could hear me, in Heaven, as opposed to when she was in her demented state here on Earth. It might be cold comfort for you to hear that, but I’m just telling you my experience with my beloved Grandma.
In terms of “fairness,” what can I say? From a book I just enjoyed very much about teenagers with cancer, “Life is not a wish-granting factory.” God runs the show, and He knows infinitely more than we do what’s actually “good” and “necessary” and “supposed to be” and even “fair.” I don’t claim to know God’s plans, but I do know they are Always Good.
What I find interesting about my belief in God and His ultimate goodness is that it’s based on my scientific background. I believe in God because I am a spiritual and religious person, but for me, personally, the overarching absolute proof that an involved, intelligent God is running all aspects of our lives comes from my extensive knowledge of our incredible bodies, both on a cellular level and on a macro-level, and how our bodies interact, scientifically speaking, with the rest of the universe.
It’s okay to mourn the loss of what your grandfather used to be.
For example, how trees give off oxygen and take in carbon dioxide and we take in that oxygen and give off the carbon dioxide the trees need, how our every cellular mechanism works so intricately and so incredibly at every millisecond with the most complicated chemical cascades and interconnected processes that can’t be even a bit off or we would contract cancer or cells would die or we would die…all my scientific knowledge points indubitably to a constantly involved, amazingly intelligent God who orchestrates everything in the universe at every single moment.
And with that rock-solid knowledge that God is completely in charge, I’m reminding you of all the sayings of our sages that that intelligent, involved God loves us and takes care of us in exactly the way we need to be taken care of, every moment.
Declines are sad. Endings of eras are sad. It’s okay to mourn the loss of what your grandfather used to be. Mourn the loss of his grand, strong presence in your life and in the family. Mourn the loss of his vigor and his youthful energy. Crying is fine. Crying is normal when you’re mourning a loss. Cry. Mourn.
And then decide how you want to best use the time you have left with him now.