This is long, I discuss mental illness and aging, and have no real point other than getting it off of my chest.
I think I'm fairly unusual in that all four of my grandparents are still alive. I've never had to deal with death other than in the slightly abstract, general sadness one feels when a great aunt or uncle you don't know particularly well goes into a nursing home or passes away. Watching my grandparents age is triggering so many strange emotions.
My grandpa has always been a taciturn man. He showed his love and affection in other ways: helping with 4-H, being a custodian at the church, building a dog house with me, and going to my school concerts and plays. We have a routine, Grandpa and I. Every time I see him I punch him lightly on the arm and ask if he's staying out of trouble, and he laughs and tells me "Not really" as he shakes his fist at me. He was a dairy farmer—Grandpa grew up on a family farm and worked that family farm until they had to sell it when he was in his 60s. Five years ago he suddenly started having issues with anxiety and depression; that is to say, he suddenly began to express that he had issues with anxiety and depression. Soon after he began to struggle with answering questions and started to fall down a lot.
He went from doctor to doctor until a neurologist did a scan of his brain. They found not insignificant scar tissue. Decades ago he had been in an accident in which a drunk driver hit the tractor he was driving. He landed on the road head-first and remained unconscious for a day. The doctors changed their approach to helping him regain some of his speech. He can understand everything that's said to him, but it can take him a long time to articulate a response. Sometimes he's unable to do that. Some of the people who are supposed to be supporting him are treating him like he's a intellectually incapable of comprehension, and he seems to feel a lot of guilt for when he "fails to perform" whether through conversation, eating, or whatever.
Over the last two years, we began to suspect that my grandmother (who cared for him) was having health problems of her own. Recently she landed herself in the hospital with a massive infection. Grandpa begrudgingly moved in temporarily with my parents, and my husband and I went to visit him last weekend so mom and dad could get away.
What he's going through is not about me and my emotions, even though I feel so full of pent-up emotions I could scream. Watching my strong, quiet grandfather—my favorite grandparent, a man who lived a difficult life—barely able to shuffle around without assistance broke my heart. Seeing him get so anxious because my parents were leaving for a few hours and his routine was being adjusted was like a truck running over the broken pieces of my heart. Seeing his frustration at not being able to answer questions made me babble on about such inane crap because I felt like I had to fill the silence so he didn't feel like he was failing at conversation. And above all, I'm so angry. At the drunk person who hit him so long ago. At the people who treat him like he doesn't exist or has dementia. At myself for living so far away and not going to see him at Christmas this year. At the whole damn country for not having better support systems for helping people to deal with aging in a dignified way. I found myself for a time and place in which many extended families lived and worked together until I realized that in those days he probably would not have made it to 83.
I learned last weekend to recognize when he did want something because the light in his eyes would change, even if he couldn't express it. Passed him the peanut m&ms even though he said he didn't deserve them because he didn't eat much breakfast. I busted out an old photo album from ten years ago and we looked at the pictures of him helping my brother and I with our 4-H projects. We criticized the judges' score for the Turkish ice-dancing team and I defended my love of suspenders to him.
Then I went back home and sobbed about my grandfather being trapped in a body which is rapidly betraying him. I am 28 years old and can't stop thinking about his mortality and what will happen to me at his age. Am I staring at my future?
Aging, man. It sucks.