Ben and I have been having a long ongoing conversation ever since we started discussing living with Grandma Lila. It involves what it really means to live and what makes people interested in living.
The first premise of this discussion is that "living" is a lot different than "existing". There are a lot of people out there who are still breathing - even without help! - and yet aren't really living. Just sort of...existing until it's time to stop breathing. Most people recognize this and tend to apply a lot of different standards to a life to try to define what it really means to live ("if you don't have your health, you're not really living!"); and it's in that process that people can frighteningly come up with the idea that if you're not living the "quality of life" they define as "really living", you're probably miserable and it would be a mercy to put an end to your useless existence.
Ben and I haven't been discussing whether or not some people should go on living: we've simply been trying to identify the characteristics that define a person who is really living and has that unique sparkle in their eyes.
One of the things we've noticed is that people who are really living often have a variety of things they do to feel useful.
Depending on the person, sometimes those are very small things; or they're a whole lot of really big things. People who are interested and engaged in life have at least some tasks they feel responsible for. If you start removing those tasks - even if it's out of kindness - you can see an immediate decline in that person's enthusiasm for living. Irrelevance is a deadly thing. Human beings need to be needed or they sort of waste away.
When my family moved around the corner from my Nana and Papa eleven or twelve years ago, one of the things they were concerned about was that we would start trying to take over things that they were handling just fine on their own, like cutting the grass. They had noticed with their parents' generation that when people got such tasks taken away from them, they would start declining and actually be no longer capable of what they used to enjoy, which led to sadness and general lack of desire to live. We had to be very careful not to help them unless they really wanted help. You really can kill someone with kindness, they taught us.
When we looked at Grandma Lila living with us, we started considering what things Grandma might need responsibility for to keep her mind engaged so that she still had LIFE, not just a boring existence. They didn't have to be big things, simply things that every day Grandma was responsible for so she would be living, not declining. Grandma's personality is such that she's not a "busy" person and is quite contented to have a few small things she is responsible for every day. One of the things we figured out is that she cares very much for how she's dressed, so we've been backing away as much as possible from getting her dressed so that she has as much in her command as she's capable of. It takes her a long time, but when she gets herself all dressed and puts her jewelry on and puts makeup on and does her hair and brushes her teeth, she tends to be much more alert and engaged than if we're in a hurry and need to hustle her through the process.
Another place we see Grandma really come alive is when it comes to playing (and teaching) piano. She will work hard on that for hours and she's in a rare good mood when she's decided she's done. I love to hear her play because my mom is very similar in that she'd practice for hours and hours a day if she had time. Grandma playing piano sounds like home to me because she likes all the same music Mom does. We've been encouraging her to keep playing everyday to regain the nimbleness in her fingers and remember pieces that got rusty over the weeks she was confined to bed because when she works on the piano, she feels as though she's really DONE something with her day.
Tonight she's actually giving Ben lessons on reading and playing proper sheet music. She's being quite a drill sergeant. I told Ben she's getting him back for his tough drilling on her daily leg exercises.
We've seen a lot of change in Grandma since she's been home and we've been seeking out what things we can make her responsibility so that she will feel truly alive, not just like she's passing the time. She's become much more independent, getting herself around the house, clearing her own dishes off the table, and generally living like she's home again rather than in an institution environment. Hopefully, she feels like she's living. I know right now she does - she has a light in her eyes when she's teaching piano like no other time.
And the light in the eyes is a sign of someone who's living.
Wife of Benjamin and mother to two wonderful little girls who are getting bigger every day. Enjoys writing down thoughts and discussions we are having within the family and sharing them with whoever is interested in reading.
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