From the Heart of the South Pt. 1

Thoughts that have come up during my brief road trip to the South:

My Grandma

In the last couple of years, my grandma has continued to decline as her dementia progressively worsens. I last saw my grandma two years ago as she still knew me then. She was already showing significant physical and mental decline at the time. Despite the setback, she was eager to see me. She was still her normal, shy, overprotective self, and would ask me in Vietnamese of where I’m going and when I’ll be back. As I left her home, she hugged me, and slipped $30 in my pocket for gas money on the way home. I knew then that this was the memory that I wanted to hold onto because it would not be long before her collection of memories began to disappear from her body.

When we arrived on Monday morning to her home, she opened the door and gleefully smiled as she saw my brother, and asked my mom if it was her. She seem pleased to see us, but as I made eye contact with her, she looked past me. She made no reaction when she saw me, not even a “Who are you?” remark from her. From her reaction, it’s almost as if my 6 ft, 200 lb frame magically turned itself into a ghost as she didn’t acknowledge my presence. She asked my mom if Andy and I were her two sons. My grandma barely communicated with us, as she spent most of her days sitting on the coach watching TV, or randomly going outside picking at the weeds even when she’s been told countless times to not go outside. I had learned a great deal about Alzheimer’s and dementia through my recent work with seniors, and would try to educate my family about how to deal with my grandma’s condition, yet it still did not prepare me for the reality that my grandma could not remember me. I became afraid to go near her for fear that I would scare her. As her memory continues to fade, our family is faced with the uncertainty of how to prepare for her end-of-life care.

The lack of accessible senior care in the rural South in addition to the lack of language / cultural needs have made the process of finding quality care for my grandma that much harder, and puts the burden on immediate family members to fulfill their caregiving roles. The generations-old Asian tradition of taking care of your elderly parents seems almost daunting now as many adult children are working longer hours and unable to provide the level of quality care their parents deserve.

My grandma is the only living grandparent I still have. On my father’s side, both of my grandparents have passed. My dad’s mother died when my dad was little, and his father died when I was 9 years old in Vietnam but I never knew him. My grandpa on my mom’s side was the grandparent I bonded most with, but died a month before my 13th birthday. My grandma, despite living into my 30s, was one I knew little about. We lived almost a 1,000 miles apart between Chicago and Bayou La Batre, but my mom had a sometimes estranged relationship with her which led me to not be able to see her for 11 years in 2011. It was having that decade-long gap of not seeing her that I personally feel sadness and shame with. I wonder how is it that I let so many years slip past me that I couldn’t see her. Why did I not advocate hard enough to my mom about letting me see her? Why was I so frightened by my lack of ability to speak in my grandma’s native tongue that it would prevent me from making that trip? How could I not allow my grandma to play more than just a mere backdrop in my life? Those are questions that I have to ask myself when I see my grandma in her current state.

Despite the many years that I did not see her, my grandma loves me and my brothers in our recent visits. Her gleeful expression at our arrivals erased our concerns that she would begrudge us for neglecting her. I admit that my just recent visit didn’t provide me the quality time I should have spent with her, but as I left, she smiled and wrapped her frail arm around my waist. As we were set to depart, my grandma looked on from the porch and waved us goodbye. Even as she sees us as strangers, she can still remember how much she is loved by us.

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