Between 13-15% of the population is over the age of 65 and many of those adults are vulnerable.* They have lost a spouse, friends, health, even children, and at times the fear and loss of a home known to them for years. In Japan, it is not uncommon for several generations of a family to live under the same roof for life. Age is not looked at as a weakness but something to honor, and happiness and longevity of life have been attributed to strong family bonds through centuries of tradition that care for elderly family members. This trend can be seen in many different cultures, but in America at times, age is looked at as a weakness, undesirable, and even a burden. As a P2E crew we agree that a sign of an empathic spirit is one who is willing to care for the vulnerable. This is why Heather’s story is so important to us. Her willingness to think countercultural and look to an older generation for comfort, wisdom, and care, is at the heart of empathy. We hope you enjoy her story.
My Path2Empathy began through the loss of my parents and the feeling of loneliness that both my grandmother and I felt. This feeling has bonded us and I’m proud to say brought about healing. Spending time with people you care about the most should be a priority. Sometimes finding that priority comes through necessity.
While living in Massachusetts, in May 2007, I got a call from my step-mother informing me that my dad had died. When I hung up the phone, my heart sank. Like anyone can tell you, losing a loved one puts you in a flood of emotion that is chilling. The travel, the funeral, dividing possessions is even harder when the grief brings to light the severed or difficult relationships within the family. Strained is putting it mildly when describing the relationship with my dad’s wife. For example, he was cremated, and my stepmother was kind enough to give my sister and I some of his ashes, but said that none should go to my grandmother (his mother). Our grandmother was the hardest hit by our father's death and the fact she could not grieve the loss of her son respectfully was hard for me to swallow, and was causing my grandmother much pain. He died of a massive heart attack, the same way her husband died, and for reasons unknown to us she was being denied the honor of a grieving mother. It was clear after the insurance was paid my dad’s wife did not want anything to do with my grandmother or us.
Years after his death, I was living in Colorado and I would talk to my grandmother and she would often say that she was not sleeping well because she felt alone. It appeared she had so many friends in the apartment building where she lived, and it seemed like she was always on the go, so I couldn’t quite see why loneliness had set in.
My husband's parents began inviting her to holiday dinners and cookouts as well as taking her to doctor appointments. They became her surrogate family in Ohio so I knew she had support from people I trusted. Then in 2015, I watched my mother pass away in a Denver hospital after a two year battle with Lymphoma. Our extended family was shrinking, widening the space of my own grief and making me realize all we had left was my grandmother. Thankfully, my step-father was gracious and treated us with respect. He kept his word with calls and visits so the grieving felt easier in some ways. He is a good man and loved our mother. In the weeks and months after her death, I found myself thinking, "I need to call Mom." Then it would all come back. I was close with my mom. Although I had my husband and friends, I felt an emptiness. I felt alone. Watching someone you love die, changes you. You begin to think about what is most meaningful in your life. Time becomes very precious and spending that time with people who mean the most becomes a priority.
Back in Ohio my grandmother was turning 90, and her health was not the best although she still lived on her own and could still get around. Conversations with her became discussions about planning for her care if something happened. She was never keen on talking about this so we never really got anywhere. It was in one of these conversations that I asked if she would like to move to Colorado and live with us. With my own recent loss and experience with loneliness, I knew I did not want my grandmother to feel lonely anymore. It took some convincing, but much to my relief and joy she agreed. Around that time, my husband and I decided to build a house with my grandmother in mind and the plans and preparations began.
When you’re 90 years old, moving across the country is no easy task, but we all embraced the challenge. My mother and father-in-law stepped in and helped her with packing and getting rid of some of her furniture by selling or donation. I coordinated the moving truck and the people who packed it. My mother-in-law bought a ticket to fly with her and on February 1st, 2017, we came under one roof. It has been an adjustment as anyone can imagine. Grandma was used to living on her own and taking care of herself. My husband and I never had kids, and it has always been just the two of us. However, I felt we were both meeting a need in each other: Me missing my parents and her missing her son and independance. Having walked in her shoes of loss and loneliness, I understood what she had been talking about all this time. Now we have each other. She goes to the senior center, I go to work, she attends church, I work on my art, but together we are taking care of one another. Spending time with each other has become our priority. Could I have found someone else to care for her? Sure, I could have sent her money, or found other living arrangements. But caring for those who are aging is more than making sure they take medications and are clean; it is also making sure they aren’t lonely, and because I love my grandmother I knew I could do both. It is a high calling, one I am proud of.
There have been parts of this journey when I craved empathy from those around me. Some, like my step-mother, were unable to stand in my shoes and grieve with me. Others, like my step-father, met me on my path and kept pace as I processed the loss of my mother. My own grief gave me perspective on my grandmother’s experience and helped me to understand the weight of loss and loneliness. Although this path began with pain and heartbreak, it has brought me and my grandmother to a deeper understanding of one another and has given us a unique opportunity to bond.
Grandma has been settled for a while, and even though I know at some point it will be hard, I am happy to report she is sleeping well at night again.
Heather Pochatek- Daughter, Granddaughter, Caregiver, Teacher