Editor’s note: November is National Caregivers Month, created to share appreciation for family caregivers around the country. In this remembrance, Dennis Streets, the executive director of the …
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Editor’s note: November is National Caregivers Month, created to share appreciation for family caregivers around the country. In this remembrance, Dennis Streets, the executive director of the Chatham County Council on Aging, reflects on caregivers in his family.
I was always told that my Grandpa Streets had “hardening of the arteries.” He died when I was 12. Sadly I don’t have many recollections of Grandpa that are not clouded by his cognitive impairment. Grandpa was a western Pennsylvania coal miner who started in the mines at age 9 and retired in the mines at age 65.
My understanding is that soon after moving to Pinellas Park, Florida, he began showing worrisome signs. He would get lost walking his dog, Skippy, and people in town would drive him and Skippy back home. I do remember how quiet he was in our family gatherings — only occasionally laughing at something my brother David would do. David could make us all laugh with his one-person plays. I especially recall one at Thanksgiving — one of the last times Grandpa sat with us at the dinner table.
My pronounced memories of Grandpa Streets, though, are the days and nights I would be present when Aunt Eva would be trying to manage his confused and sometimes combative behaviors — and then later on when Grandpa was bedridden, and Eva was doing her best to provide loving care.
I remember how upsetting it was to Grandma to see her dear lifelong partner roaming the house in the middle of the night acting as though he was wiring the mine. I was just 7 — nearly Grandpa’s age when he worked as a miner — but I was so unsettled by what I saw.
What was most amazing about Aunt Eva, during the 10 years that she was the live-in caregiver for Grandma and Grandpa, is that Eva also taught elementary school that entire time. In fact, because Eva started teaching in the coal mining town of Sutersville, Pennsylvania, as soon as she graduated from high school, she also had to earn her college degree at the same time she was Grandpa’s caregiver. I often wonder how Aunt Eva did all of this and more. Eva ended up teaching 48 and a half years — only retiring because there was a mandatory retirement age in our school district at that time.
Not only did Eva survive during this period of her life … she flourished in many ways. She had a tremendous sense of humor. She was active with a close knit group of friends. She took trips overseas, including Cuba. And Eva helped my brothers, sister and me achieve our education. She was our “second mother.”
Having never married, Aunt Eva eventually moved to Christmount, near Black Mountain, into a house next to my parents when they moved from Florida to the Tar Heel state.
Fortunately she enjoyed several wonderful years there — making vegetable soup, pickled eggs, ambrosia and so much more. She made new friends, took a few more trips, and loved playing cards.
On one winter day, Eva fell at the front door of her house and broke her hip. This was the beginning of a long, but steady decline. In some ways Eva fit the profile of someone who might predictably end up living her remaining years in a nursing home. While still cognitively very sharp, Eva eventually required considerable personal care assistance. She became incontinent and frail. She was in a hospital bed in her living room for three years. At the age of 92, Eva died at home, as had Grandpa Streets.
The caregiving that Eva began came full circle when my brother David left his teaching position at a local community college to become her caregiver, along with providing loving assistance to our mother and father as well. He devoted 11 years to enabling them to enjoy as much quality of life as they could at home. My mother lived to age 87 and my dad, 93.
David often says: “I never considered the caregiving a burden, but rather a privilege.”
After caring for my dad, who outlived both my mom and Aunt Eva, David applied what he had learned about caregiving to a new role. He became a certified nursing assistant and staff member of a retirement community. His humor, compassion, caring nature, knowledge and practical skills added immensely to those residing in the community assisted living unit.
When I hear about “essential” workers during this period of COVID-19, I cannot think of any two persons in my life who better defined what it means to be “essential” in a loving and caring family.
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