Several months after the funeral of a great man, President George H.W. Bush, one line from the eulogies has stuck with me. George P. Bush, the president’s grandson, quoted these words from an email sent by the president to his grandchildren:
The only thing wrong with the last five months is that none of you were here enough. Next year, promise this old Gampster you’ll spend more time with us, here by the sea . . . I think of you all an awful lot. I just wonder how each of you is doing in school and in life. If you need me, I’m here for you because I love you very much.
I’ve been pondering my changing relationships with my own grandparents over these last few years. Now that I’m in my late twenties, it’s been quite a while since the family road trips to visit Grandma and spend a week at her house. Visits are my own to initiate now, and the dynamics of visiting have changed as my grandparents have aged.
Especially in the early “adulting” years, life is packed with school, work, social life, dating, and so many other things. It’s easy to let these important relationships slide for lack of time. But our grandparents have unique perspectives, having raised our parents and loved us our entire lives. They have many valuable insights on life to share with us, and they simply deserve our time, love, gratitude, and company, especially in this stage of their lives.
How do we maintain and strengthen relationships with elderly relatives who are such a font of wisdom and who love us so much? These ideas are a good place to start.
01. Visit often.
This one may seem obvious, but it can be the hardest to do. I live in a different state from all of my grandparents. Visits take time and money, both of which are in short supply. But, as they age, I realize that their company is also in short supply. I’ve never regretted making the effort to visit, and I have definitely regretted not visiting. Before a few months ago, my grandparents hadn’t met my fiancé, and they won’t be able to attend the wedding as they don’t travel anymore. So, my fiancé and I recently made a trip to see them and deliver a Save the Date in person. They were touched that we traveled so that they could meet my future husband and feel included in the upcoming festivities.
My grandmother loves company for a day of running errands or going to the movies. Something as simple as meeting for lunch, if you’re local, can mean the world to a grandparent. Also consider if there is a trip that your grandparents would like to take, but can’t because of difficulties with travel. Could you drive with them to visit a relative a few hours away? Or fly with them so that they don’t have to worry about figuring out how to make airplane connections or other travel complications?
02. Pick up the phone.
Especially if someone lives alone, phone calls can be a wonderful gift to receive. Add their birthdays or anniversaries to your calendar and call them on those days. More than that, call them just to say hi. Often, just listening to what is going on in their life will be much appreciated. Bonus points if you can share happy things that are happening in your life! Grandparents love to hear about new job possibilities, new boyfriends, and anything else about which they can get excited! I find it helpful to set a goal for myself of calling on a regular basis: ever week, or every other week. (Those recurring reminders on your phone are wonderful for this!) It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness of life, but remember that something as simple as a phone call while you make dinner or go for a walk could be a huge bright spot in your grandparents’ day.
Conversations with my grandparents have definitely gotten more challenging over the years. My grandmother with dementia needs constant reminders of what I’m doing, where I live, etc. She tends to get upset that she can’t remember things, but responding with a nonchalant “that’s okay, I’m happy to tell you again!” tends to set her a little more at ease. Even when the conversations are difficult, a little patience goes a long way.
03. Send snail mail.
When was the last time you put a real envelope in the mail? Send them birthday cards, or just little notes to say hello. When I was a teacher, I would always get tons of copies of my school photo for the year, and I had no clue what to do with them. Guess who still loves to put school photos up on the fridge when you’re in your late twenties? That’s right, your grandparents. Mail them photos once in a while, with a note about how life is for you right now. You’ll make their day.
Other easy ways to do this could include sending them ecards, buying a postcard for them whenever you travel (keep stamps in your wallet!), sending them flowers, or cutting newspaper articles out that you think they would enjoy and mailing those. I find that it can be easy to get discouraged and stop sending mail if the one receiving it doesn’t reply. But remember, especially with the elderly, that writing can be very difficult, and it may be more complicated than we realize for them to get something stamped and in the mailbox. Keep sending notes anyway—your grandparents will appreciate that you thought of them.
04. Really listen to them.
When you talk to your grandparents, be aware of how intentionally you are listening to what they say. It’s hard to age—really listen to what your grandparents tell you about how hard it is to sleep, how much their joints ache, etc., and respond with sympathy and understanding. The elderly can be more likely to have a doom-and-gloom outlook on life. Who can blame them—their spouse may have died, their body hurts more, they don’t have as much energy, it’s harder to get out and see their friends, their family may live far away. Even if you have noticed them becoming more ornery as they have aged, look a little deeper; may just be an indication that they need a listening ear and a friend now more than ever.
These ideas may seem to be stating the obvious; they are. But though it’s often obvious to us that we need to care for, love, and respect our grandparents, sometimes it’s helpful to go back to the basics and remind ourselves of concrete actions, not vague theories: Call them. Visit. Send them mail. I suspect that most of our grandparents would agree with President George H.W. Bush when he told his grandchildren, “If you need me, I’m here for you because I love you very much.” Let’s show our grandparents how very much we love them, too.