5 Lessons My Grandmother Taught Me

By Jean Burke-Spraker

While in Philly, I stayed with my 95-year-old grandmother for a couple of days. I last saw her at her 90th birthday party. The change over the last five years is dramatic, if only because so much time has passed. The subtle, gradual, daily changes no one mentions seem stark after so much time away. At 90, we practically had to chase her down the beach in Ocean City. Now, she can still walk, but needs mechanical assistance with steps and long distances. She has her mental faculties, but her memory is gone. She insists she is 100 years old. Perhaps that insistence reflects how she feels. I don’t know. Over the last couple of days, I have learned quite a few things from my grandmother.

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1. Learn the lyrics to all your favorite songs. Now.
Despite her third-grade education, my grandmother was always an avid reader. But, as age has robbed her of her eyesight, she has stopped reading. She spends most of her time listening to music. Songs from her childhood, songs from my childhood, songs from last week. It doesn’t really matter. The ones that spark her brain are the old standards; Danny Boy, God Bless America, Ave Maria. Even when she doesn’t listen to music, she hums and sings.

2. Dance.
A few weeks ago, my grandmother won a dance contest at her elder care facility, where she goes while my aunt works. I suspect that she won more for participation and enthusiasm and less because she was able to maneuver the best. Her knees and back hurt, and yet she dances any chance she gets. Dancing is why at 95 she is in better shape than some of her own children. My grandmother has stayed active.

3. Invest in long-term care insurance.
In just the few short days we were with my grandmother, I became acutely aware of how challenging life was for the relatives who care for her. She must be watched 24 hours a day and bounces from relative to relative on alternating weekends. This grandma shuffle is a common phenomenon in many families, and certainly isn’t unique to mine. For my grandmother, it works because she has lived in the same house her entire life and can’t imagine living in a nursing home. She also has many children willing to share the burden, but not everyone has a large family. The question you must ask yourself is do you want your children to put their lives on hold to care for you as you age. If the answer is no, then you will need long-term care, and you need to plan for it.

4. Be grateful.
As her memory fades, my grandmother repeats her conversations. She asked me many times who I was, where do I live, and–when she found out I live in India–do I like it there. Yet, she also repeated that the day was beautiful and thanked God for that beauty. She’s grateful that her children have good lives, even though the sad truth is that she does not recognize her own daughter.

5. Pray.
My grandmother spontaneously prays the Our Father or the Hail Mary. She prays the rosary daily. These rote prayers give her great comfort. When her rosary recently broke, she substituted a necklace with charms on it that resembles a rosary. The words of the prayer are irrelevant. I have great doubt that she prays all five decades with all the accompanying prayers. But, that doesn’t matter. What matters is the comfort that comes from the prayers; the joy on her face as she prays; the belief that God will hear her. That’s all.