“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
Love never fails. I’ve never doubted this. Yet love sometimes demands much of us, especially in our roles as caregivers to loved ones who live with dementia. Yes, love is patient and kind, but love must also be flexible enough to bend to the needs of both ourselves and those we love.
During winter break, my father and I had several conversations about adjusting my at-home learning environment. Sitting in the kitchen with Grandma, as I did in the last couple of weeks of the fall semester and during my winter break job, would not cut it.
Not only are there frequent verbal interruptions, but the sight of Grandma falling asleep with her magazine in hand is simply too much to bear. How could I lean into a difficult discussion in my economics class, write code for my computer science class, or jot down notes about the upcoming reading assignment while Grandma’s head rested on the table? The short answer is: I couldn’t. This was a lose-lose situation in desperate need of reconstruction.
My father and I agreed that scraping by in school wasn’t an option. Once we recognized that I needed separation during synchronous class periods in order to focus, we created an action plan: move my mom’s old desk into my room, sand down the door so it actually closes, and attend all classes in there.
Of course, simply removing myself from the difficult situation was not a complete solution. My father would need to spend more time with her during the day, whether walking her around the house (as it’s often too cold or slippery outside), getting her started on jigsaw puzzles, or pulling up a new Frank Sinatra special on Netflix.
I, on the other hand, would venture downstairs during breaks to get her dressed, check in on how she was feeling, and maybe toss around a ball with her. At the end of the school day, after all classes, club meetings, and major assignments were complete, I would spend the evening next to her, relaxing and crossing off the final items on my daily to-do list.
The plan seemed solid. It was only temporary, after all: she was due to be vaccinated soon, at which point, we would consider returning to Adult Day Care for some stretch of the week. This would open up new and improved opportunities for socialization and give everyone in the house a short break from each other.
Planning and execution, though, are two totally different beasts.
Holiday festivities must have wiped my memory of the time suck that is a college semester. That first week, I made it downstairs only for the bare necessities: meals, changing her clothes, and some occasional exercise. During class, my mind wandered. What was she up to? How was she feeling? All the while, assignments continued to pile up, and I struggled mightily to adjust. I was exhausted and frustrated by the time the weekend rolled around, to say the least.
But love never fails. It perseveres.
After some reflection, I tweaked my routine. I took up the Pomodoro Method to introduce more productive work periods into my day, and I broke those up with evenly dispersed trips downstairs. When stress or guilt about being in another room inched back into my life, I would listen to relaxing music and check in with Grandma.
Lastly, my father and I reaffirmed our commitment to keeping her physically active and mentally engaged. I am slowly learning to trust that, under his care, she will be okay. I am so incredibly fortunate to have a partner in this journey of caregiving. I hope that, in time, we’ll become even better at leaning on each other.
Fast forward to the end of the week, and I’ve reached the first Wellness Day, Harvard’s “clever” replacement for Spring Break in a COVID-19 world. Instead of working towards a contiguous stretch of 5 days off, which incentivizes students to travel, I now look forward to periodic class-free weekdays. Unlike the last weekend, I felt refreshed and excited for this extra time with Grandma.
After my first pomodoro of the day, I walked into the kitchen and asked, “Do you know what month it is?”
“It’s February! That means Valentine’s Day is right around the corner.” (I wink.)
“Are you gonna find me a Valentine?”
( Together, we laugh.)
It turns out neither Grandma nor I have had much luck in the romantic realm on Valentine’s Day. But love comes in many forms, and Valentine’s Day celebrates them all. My grandmother, my father, and I celebrate a love that perseveres through obstacles of dementia, as well as obstacles of opposing needs and conflicting schedules.
The next few months may not be easy, but my father and I, alert to Grandma’s ever-changing abilities and interests, can communicate about what is and isn’t working. We can adapt without fully compromising our own needs, and, most importantly, we can be guided by love.
Love never fails.