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I remember finding the plastic Stouffer’s tray on the kitchen table. Part of the plate was singed and melted into the macaroni and cheese. Grandad had put his frozen dinner in the toaster oven instead of the microwave and nearly burned his house down.
But that hadn’t stopped him from eating most of his meal that evening.
I had flown the thousand-plus miles from Montana to his Arizona home, to assess his situation after receiving a phone call from one of his friends. She didn’t think he was capable of taking care of himself any longer. I knew the moment I walked into that kitchen and smelled burnt plastic that she was right. He needed help.
But at 92, he was more stubborn than a mule. After my grandmother died, Grandad had lived on his own for more than a decade and got along quite well. He played golf twice a week and swam a half-mile every day for years, but one day he tripped and fell on his walk home from the pool, breaking his wrist. His golf and pool days were over for a while.
That loss of regular exercise saw a rapid decline in his mental faculties. Not long after, his driver’s license was revoked after a couple of minor hit-and-run incidents. (He actually thought I was the person who reported him and threatened to cut me “out of the will”—at least until my aunt called him and assured him I had done no such thing.) Without his car, he was really holed up and isolated.
Grandad and I had a special relationship. I was the only one in the family who could yell back at him with the same ferocity he delivered. We both knew how to appreciate a fiery debate. Everyone else in my family was afraid of him. To be honest, I had him completely wrapped around my finger. We were tight like that.
So for that reason, it fell upon me to tell him it was time to set pride aside and rely on other people. He was going to have to enter some kind of assisted living arrangement.
I was determined to move him up to my home state.
During that Arizona visit, I mustered the courage to tell him I was worried, and I wished he lived closer. He actually mentioned the Stouffer’s incident had scared him, which was the closest he’d ever come to admitting he needed help. I asked if he’d consider Montana as an option, and he said, “hell no.”
I pulled an aggressive opening move—you might could call it The Nann Gambit—and suggested he come for a visit, so we could tour assisted facilities near my house. “Just to see what’s out there—no pressure.”
Grandad accepted my offer, so the day I returned home, I did some research and compiled a list of assisted living options near me. I selected my favorite and put it at the top of the list—it was only five blocks from my house. When I inquired, they amazingly had a full apartment available, so I put down a stealth earnest money deposit and scheduled a showing for the day my grandfather was to arrive.
I booked Grandad’s flight and coordinated a shuttle to pick him up and deliver him to the airport. I also made sure someone would meet him in Denver, to transfer him in a wheelchair to his connecting flight. I called to let him know of the plan.
“Grandad, I’ve arranged for your visit.” He expressed some mild interest, noting he was looking forward to meeting his new great granddaughter.
What I didn’t tell him was I had bought a one-way ticket. There would be no going back. Could I officially be accused of kidnapping? I’d hoped not.
I picked Grandad up at the airport on a sunny afternoon. He was in good spirits and said his traveling experience was smooth and stress free. Meeting my daughter improved his mood even more.
Once we checked him into his hotel room and fed him lunch, I wasted no time in showing him the list.
“We have an appointment to see an apartment this afternoon, Grandad. We aren’t committing to anything, they just happen to be available to meet today,” I said. “We’re just looking—no commitment to buy!” Little white lie.
He grumbled, so I went in with the big guns. “Afterward, we can have dinner at our house, which is only a few blocks away. I’ve got my special spaghetti sauce on the stove waiting for you.”
Now, anyone knowing my Grandfather understood full well his main motivator in this world was food. I knew I’d have him at “spaghetti.”
The woman who greeted us at the assisted living facility was very pleasant, and she immediately charmed my grandfather, so he wasn’t on the defensive from the outset.
As we toured through, Grandad indicated he was somewhat impressed with the dining hall and atrium. And I could even sense a bit of giddiness about the ice cream parlor. When he entered the apartment I had reserved (unbeknownst to him), all he said was, “This is nice.” He still wore his game-face scowl.
Now, any other person would have interpreted that look on his face as a barrier to entry, but the optimist in me understood it to mean he had met his match. We officially entered into the end game. All I needed to do was work a little culinary magic.
We sat down to dinner that evening, and I put a heaping plate of noodles soaked in meat sauce in front him. Grandad never spoke during dinner. He’d slouch over his plate, inches from his food, and shovel it into his mouth, mumbling (or maybe it was more of a humming) to himself while he ate. He wouldn’t respond to any conversation—he was like an automated, self-feeding machine … that hummed.
But after he slurped up the last noodle of his second helping, I made my offer: Stay here in Montana, my husband would go to Arizona and get whatever essentials he needed and drive them up with a U-Haul, and my aunt could take care of getting his Arizona home ready to put on the market. “You won’t have to worry about anything.”
I told him we’d see him all the time, make sure he made his doctor appointments, plus he’d have his own apartment and would no longer need to prepare his own meals.
Most important, I told him we loved him and didn’t want to worry about him anymore, which had been a huge source of stress for everyone. (Nothing like a subtle, passive-aggressive guilt trip to get what you want—my grandmother taught me that trick.)
Grandad put on his game face and then said, “Yes. (Burp) I think it’s a good idea.”
He had no idea there was no return ticket to Arizona—he thought he’d made the decision to remain in Montana of his own free will.
Five days later we moved him into his new apartment, and he settled in quite nicely.
I Was Not Kidnapping Grandad — We Were All Happy
Had I tried to convince him while I was in Arizona, Grandad would have dug his heels in and likely spent his last years miserable in a facility miles from family. He wouldn’t have had anyone close by to check up on him.
I perhaps knew my stubborn Grandfather better than anyone, so I made that bold initial move and opted for the white lie. I had a strong sense that it would work. I just needed him to see, first-hand, the possibilities for good housing, good food, and good company, so he could make the decision for himself (wink, wink).
We saw each other all the time, so he no longer felt isolated. He loved being with my daughter when we’d walk over for visits. He enjoyed strolls along the river or around the duck pond. (He got a good chuckle that time his run-away wheelchair almost dumped him into the drink). He liked feeding the dogs (and sometimes inadvertently himself) Pupperoni treats when he came over to our house.
But most of all, he loved sitting down to dinner with us every Sunday and enjoying a home-cooked meal—without the melted plastic.
Sure, I occasionally felt guilty for using deceptive tactics. But in the end, we were both happy with the way things turned out, and I am so grateful I got to spend those last couple of years living down the street from my Grandad. ISI