Archive for Sunday, November 4, 2001

Taking care of grandmother

Family tries to do the right thing, but finds decision has long-lasting effects

November 4, 2001


— Mary Roles' call in 1969 was a simple, but life-changing event for the Carpenter family.

My great-aunt was saying my grandmother, Ruth Goode, had developed a weak heart and could no longer live alone in her two-story stucco home in the mountains of Princeton, W.Va.

Mary asked my mother if Ruth could live with us in Greenwood.

My parents, Jim and Jane, were in their mid-30s. They were struggling to make ends meet on a small dairy in Missouri while raising four kids ages 2 to 10.

My mother trudged out to the narrow, white milk parlor to deliver Mary's request to my father. Only cows witnessed the short conversation.

"Can we?" Mom asked.

"You don't really have a choice," my father said.

I didn't realize it then, but our fate mirrored that of millions of American families. Each responding to the inevitable aging of a parent with a decisive move uniting generations under one roof.

Our calling to do the right thing for my grandmother came fairly easy.

But living with that reality for eight years was easy for no one, including Grandmother Goode.

"Yes," my mother said, "it makes a big difference in the family."

Coal miner's teacher

Ruth Roles Goode was born in 1897. Her mother died of typhoid fever when she was 6 weeks old. As was common back then, her dad sent her to live with a grandmother. That's where she stayed for 12 years, until she was returned to her remarried father.

Ruth beat the odds stacked against career women and became a public school teacher. She started by teaching barefoot kids in a coal camp. She also married a World War I veteran, who was shot and gassed at the front in France and died too young in 1954.

The couple had three daughters two their own and one adopted. In 1936, my mother was born to them.

When Ruth arrived at our house in 1969, she was given an upstairs bedroom. My parents took the second bedroom. The four kids' beds filled the third, transforming most of the room into a makeshift trampoline for kids. About a year later, Ruth paid for a one-story addition built on the back of the 1906 farmhouse.

And so it came to be that Ruth Goode's life eventually came full circle through role reversal. At the beginning, Ruth lived as a child with a grandmother. Toward the end, Grandmother Ruth took up residence with one of her children.

Picture perfect for girls

In conversations with my parents and my three siblings, it became apparent that memories of my grandmother differ.

It's difficult for me to peel back three decades to recall those times. Not many pictures exist of my grandmother's stretch in Greenwood. It wasn't due to neglect. We simply didn't own a camera.

My sisters were young when my grandmother arrived. Carolyn was 5 and Susan only 2. They don't need photographic evidence to prove they relished my grandmother's presence.

As the years rolled by, Susan's and Carolyn's perspective of her picked up little tarnish. Susan fondly recalls listening to grandmother's stories about distant relatives, even if she never quite figured out all the characters.

"As a child, I thought having her there was natural. I thought everybody had a grandmother living with them," Susan said.

Grandmother Goode taught Carolyn the basics of cooking and sewing.

"I just made a dress without a sewing machine," Carolyn said. "I wouldn't have been able to do that without her."

Anger, loneliness clash

As the second son, I grew from 8 to 16 during her time in Greenwood. It sounds awful, but I was bitter about her living with us. I wouldn't even sit with her in church.

I tried to make my grandmother a scapegoat for our family's lack of balance. Of all the mistaken notions I had at that time, perhaps the most foolish was that I thought if my grandmother lived somewhere else our family would magically become a normal, happy, cohesive unit.

My older brother, Steve, saw more clearly at that time. He had empathy for my grandmother. He could feel her loneliness. Her friends and much of her family were back in West Virginia. Her Southern Baptist Church was there. We went to the First Christian Church. Her politics were diehard, pro-union Democrat. Heck, she voted for George McGovern. My dad was a Republican who championed Barry Goldwater.

"She knew it was a contentious issue in the household," Steve said.

But mom insists Grandmother Goode wanted to live in Greenwood, if compelled to move from West Virginia.

"She was happy to be here because our lifestyle was more similar to hers than anywhere else she could have gone," Jane said.

Onset of dementia

My parents were both more or less used to the idea of having an elderly person in the house. My mother's great aunt, Lizzie Roles, had lived with the Goodes for 24 years in Princeton.

My dad's father, Glen, lived in their Greenwood home from the time my parents married in 1958 until 1963. He left the farm for good in 1968, when he remarried three decades after his first wife's death.

I know my dad would have fallen on a pitchfork before turning my grandmother away, but he wasn't an enthusiastic supporter of her presence. Grandmother Goode was very frugal but had money. I've always suspected part of dad's feelings came from her save-the-day ability to step in financially when he struggled to earn enough to run a seven-member household.

The responsibility of caring for my grandmother fell exclusively on my mom's shoulders. It's common in America for women of a household to become primary caregiver for the elderly.

This overwhelming duty prompted mom to ask relatives in Arizona to host Ruth at Christmas in 1977. Mom's fear was that the six of us would never experience a Christmas morning without a relative in the mix.

While in Arizona, Grandmother Goode ended up in the hospital after suffering a stroke.

The result was horrifying.

When my grandmother returned to Missouri, she recognized fewer people and didn't fully comprehend her surroundings. She would later address my mother by names of long-dead relatives. Dad said Grandmother Goode put a frozen pizza in the oven without taking it out of the box. She repeatedly left pots on the stove unattended.

"I thought she was going to burn the house down," my dad said.

Agonizing decisions

Grandmother Goode's need for 24-hour care and supervision put her and the family at a crossroads.

Aside from the financial implications of a full-time aide, the family's energy was being drawn to other areas. My dad worked a night shift at a manufacturing plant and tackled farm chores in the mornings. Mom was looking after four increasingly active children, now 10 to 18 years of age.

Something had to give. Mom's decision to put my grandmother in the hands of others wasn't easy, but a new nursing home had opened in Harrisonville, Mo. It offered the promise of good care in close proximity to Greenwood. Grandma Goode's teacher retirement pension and Social Security checks made the move possible.

From what I could tell, my grandmother greatly disliked living there. I saw little of her in those last 15 years. My sisters, who never liked the idea of sending my grandmother to a nursing home, diligently joined my mother on trips to see her. Those visits were sad affairs as my grandmother's physical and mental state continued to deteriorate. There was dementia compounded by heart attacks and cancer. The nursing home aggressively advocated feeding tubes after my mother had agreed to place her in hospice care. That battle at the end caused immense grief for my mother.

Always the teacher

By the time she passed away at 95, Grandmother Goode had left a mark on us for better or worse.

"When I struggle," Susan said, "I think of her as a guardian angel. I do feel that she loved us unconditionally."

It is one reason that I regret what became of my relationship with my grandmother. I will go to my grave saddled with remorse about selfishly squandering opportunities to connect with her.

Not all was lost, however. A decade after her death, she's still a teacher. She taught me that no person should turn their back on elderly family members. Embrace old folks for what they are: People with aging bodies and a youthful desire for love, honor and respect.

Next week: Hospice care.

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