My grandparents got a puppy. They shouldn’t have, but they did. They’re old and slow, and puppies are the opposite of those two things. But they recently lost a dog who had been their companion for years. And the new puppy, which looks a lot like their old dog except puppy-sized, is the most adorable, the most soft, the most lovable thing you’ve ever seen.

And so, they bought it. At a pet store. In a mall.

They did this in spite of the strong discouragement from their three, grown children who all understood that it would be more sensible for them to get an older dog, a calmer dog, one that would not demand so much of their attention. But once my grandfather held the little white mess of fur and puppy slobber, it was done. Sold. No arguments could persuade him otherwise. Cash spent, dog adopted.

The dog has since escaped from their house 3 times; once for a week, and the other two times for a period of a few minutes. The dog is a quick little thing, unlike–as I noted–the old folks. During the longer stint, the dog wound up in a shelter, and then a doggy foster home. She was well cared for, and probably would have been better off to have stayed there. But, after a chip-scan she was identified, my grandparents were called, and she was brought back to their home.

They’ve fixed the fence, but not the core problem. She’s too much for them to handle, and they can’t care for her.

So, we took her. We took her to train her. We gave ourselves a month, but in two days she was as trained as one could expect a 5 month old puppy to be. She, we came to understand, was not the problem.

Can You Teach An Old Man New Tricks?

Training a dog isn’t hard. Dogs want to please us. They want to do right by us. Especially the little ones. They don’t know how, but they have a deep yearning to do so. If we give them the right kind of attention, the right kind of discipline, they can succeed. The result of proper dog training is a peaceful, symbiotic relationship between dog and human, and this little puppy has shown that she’s capable of having that kind of relationship. She’s ready for it.

But my grandpa? He’s pretty much fixed in his ways. Has been for all of my life. His hearing may have changed, getting worse with each decade, and he shakes more now than he used to. But, fundamentally he’s the same man I’ve known for the last 32 years. Stubborn. Hard-headed. Frail now, but still capable of projecting the posture of a war-seasoned Marine.

He’s going to feed this dog from his plate no matter how many vets tell him he shouldn’t. He’s going to see this little puppy in her crate, and the first time she whines at him he’s going to let her out. She’ll learn to manipulate him, she’ll run the roost, and in no time he’ll wonder why she doesn’t behave. She’ll go right back to being the dog that they couldn’t handle.

It seems fated.

I could find a better home for the dog. The original foster family said they’d take her back in a heartbeat. But, it’s arguable if I would even have the right to do that without their permission. I want to. I want to give this dog to someone else, find my grandparents an old mutt they can love, and have it all go down smooth and easy, without conflict.

I want to correct the mistake they made when they bought this dog, but it isn’t mine to correct.

And, I’d only be making a new mistake.

The Freedom To Fail

Far too often we treat old people like puppies, deciding what food they should eat, what living conditions are best for them, how to schedule their lives. We condescend to them by insinuating that they don’t know what is best for them. We speak to them from a place of assumed superiority. I’ve seen other members of my family do it to my grandparents, and been horrified by it.

And now look at me.

They deserve better than that. They deserve the freedom to fail as much as the opportunity to succeed. You can’t take away one without the other disappearing, too.

But What About The Dog?

We’re going to bring the dog back. We do it with reservations, and with a laundry list of suggestions for how to better care for the puppy. We’ll spell out the do’s and don’t’s we use with our dogs, doing our best not to condescend or belittle, and knowing full well that our “Guidelines For Proper Puppy Care” may be completely ignored. We’ll check in on little “Patches” every so often to remind her of our blissful days of doggy training, but we’ll no longer take the lead. We’ll give back the control that we seized, and by doing so provide my 80-some-odd year old grandparents the opportunity to make different choices.

Whether or not they do, ultimately, is up to them.

Have you ever been in this kind of situation? Do you have experience intervening in the life of a grandparent or parent? If so, what was that like for you?

Or, have you been in a position where your children or grandchildren have attempted to influence, or even govern over the choices you make? If so, would you be willing to share your insights in the comment section? I’d love to hear your perspective.

And, if you like this post, especially all the cute pictures of the dog’ens, please share it with your friends on Facebook and Twitter!

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  • AlanHeartsong

    There's a very helpful book I recommend to everyone called "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Caring for Aging Parents". Every decision we younger folks make on their behalf takes away from their independence and makes them feel useless. It's *very* hard to decide where the dividing line is between "let them make their own mistakes" and "keep them from getting hurt". My grandmother didn't have any pet-related issues, she recognized that she just didn't want to try and handle a new pet after their last dog passed away. She did have some issues with regard to her ability to care for herself sometimes, though. But she asked for input, heard our suggestions and bounced her thoughts about it off of us until she reached a decision she was happy with.

    Now that my Mom is 71 and alone, I'm finding that it works better if I share my feelings with her ("I'd be more comfortable if you wouldn't go up on ladders with no one there to hold it") instead of telling her what to do. In the case of your grandparents and the puppy, something along the lines of "We found that she responds really well to the training commands and behavior that works with our other dogs, would you like us to show you?" might be a good approach. It gives *them* the choice to make the decision, whether you think it might be right or wrong. Let's face it, as long as the pup is adequately fed, watered, and loved she'll do just fine, although maybe a handful to deal with. Your grandparents may take to about half of the training techniques (if you're lucky), so decide which ones would be easiest for them to remember and make their life with Patches simpler.

    I wouldn't present them with the list already written, though. It might be perceived badly. If you verbally give them a few of the best tips with the promise of dropping the list by later on after you've written it, it might be received better without wounding their pride.

    • Thanks for the recommendation, Alan, and for the advice. The list was already sent before the post was published, but it appears that no one's pride was wounded. It's touchy, this business of intergenerational dialogue. The young want to be taken seriously, and the old want to be respected…and visa versa. Getting to a place where that happens requires practice, I'm learning.

      Thank you for sharing the story of your mom. It's good to hear that the two of you have developed such an open and kind style of communication.

  • Ai, ai, ai.

    Our minds run in much the same circles, Teo. I've had a blog on the subject of the elderly in the back of my mind for quite some time. This is a difficult subject.

    When I divorced in 1995, Dad and I took a long walk around the neighborhood so we could talk freely without upsetting Mom. He was a little winded by all the walking — he turned 82 that fall — but he listened, he reminisced, he offered some wisdom and good advice and a lot of sympathy.

    A couple of years later, Mom — who had always suffered from mental illness — took a turn for the worse, and Dad was overwhelmed. I took legal guardianship of Mom, to prevent her from (for instance) selling the house and sending the check to Pat Robertson — it was easier for me to handle the legal legerdemain than to dump that on Dad. Dad continued to care for Mom in their home, until she got to the point where it was physically beyond his ability. She went to nursing care, and passed in 2000.

    After Mom's decline and death, Dad started to slip away, too. We let him live in his home as long as we could, but we started to get calls from his auto insurance company for increasingly frequent fender-benders, and Dad didn't even remember he had been in them — a combination of declining mental state and denial. We realized we had to take away his car keys as a public safety measure. I tried to figure out how he could live at home with no car, and it wasn't feasible. We tried independent living, but his mind had slipped to where he could manage his structured daily routines at home, but could not adapt to the new setting. So he went to assisted living, and then to full nursing care, and passed in early 2008 at the age of 95.

    When you raise children, you assume guardianship over them because they are incapable of making appropriate choices. They don't know enough, they don't have the physical coordination, they don't have the store of experience to guide them. But you raise them with the idea in your mind that they will grow into adults who have all of these things. Your challenge as a parent is to recognize when they have enough experience that you can (and should) let go and let them make their own mistakes.

    When dealing with elders, the process runs in reverse, at least in cases like Dad's. Their experience becomes rigid and they become incapable of applying it to new circumstances — what psychologists call "patterning" — the physical coordination goes, the knowledge slips away. They aren't going to "grow out of it." They are only going to decline, overall, until eventually they stop living. The challenge as a son or daughter is to recognize when they have lost enough of their adulthood to step in and stop them from making mistakes: not so much for their sake, as for those around them. In some ways it would have been a blessing for Dad to have stumbled on the stairs to the basement workshop to do the woodworking he loved, to have broken his neck, and to have died instantly. People would have called this a "tragedy," of course. But nothing at all like the tragedy of him dying in a car accident that also took out a young couple with kids.

    Mom was relieved when I took guardianship. I expected a fight, but she thought it was wonderful. I'm not entirely sure she understood what it meant, but it was also clear that she didn't really care.

    By contrast, Dad took his "incarceration" poorly. He went through a period where he would berate his children — in third person, and it wasn't clear he was fully aware I was in the room — for "putting him in jail." That he hadn't done anything that deserved being put in jail. At other times, he was philosophic, and at others — I think — perhaps a little bit grateful. But by the time he passed, he had regressed to the level of a child. He introduced me to facility staff (who knew me by sight) as his brother. He asked me frequently if he had been married — he could no longer remember. He had spent the last half of his career writing computer software, and by the end, managing the channels on his television set was too complex a task.

    Perhaps I'll write that blog with more depth, but as a reply, I think I have to disagree with you. There comes a point where you have to take charge of your parents. Not everyone will agree on when that is, and you will have "snipers" in your extended family who will criticize any decision you make and possibly abuse you for it. Especially since there are no happy outcomes.

    • Great minds…

      I appreciate you sharing your story, Themon. I appreciate your transparency and honest, and I hope you do write at greater length about it. Your perspective may help others make it through similar situations.

      As for your disagreement, I'm not sure I understand we're saying different things. I agree with you that "there comes a point where you have to take charge of your parents," and I'm watching my parents work at doing that respectfully with my grandparents. I'm only 32, and I'm not in a position to step in, myself. I mean, I *did* step in, but my family is one that places a great deal of importance on hierarchy, and anything I do (baring something that is irreversible) could, and likely would be revoked by a parent, aunt or uncle if any of them thought it wasn't the best thing for my grandparents.

      So, we're on the same page that there may come a time in a child's life where they have to, as you so honorably did, take responsibility for the welfare of their parents. I may find myself in a similar position one day. If so, I trust that this experience, and yours, will influence how I think about it.

      Thank you again for lending your voice to this conversation. Blessings to you.

  • greywren

    I have a sad story to share.

    My maternal grandmother was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. My mom, understandably upset, turned to my paternal grandmother for help… You see, just three years ago, my paternal grandmother beat breast cancer. My mom asked her what type of cancer she'd had, what sort of treatment she had, what sort of information could she give her!! …in other words the type of desperate questions we all ask when someone we love is ill.

    My paternal grandmother didn't respond well to the questions, I guess. "It's like she doesn't even remember having cancer," my mom complained to me.

    Now, my paternal grandmother is a little absent-minded. She once drove all the way to Milwaukee before realizing she needed to head for Madison when she crossed from Illinois into Wisconsin.

    But she had not forgotten that she had beaten breast cancer.

    You see, the week prior to my mother calling her, my paternal grandmother had been diagnosed with lymphoma. She didn't want to tell my mother because she knew how upset my mother was about my paternal grandmother's diagnosis. She didn't want to add to my mother's burden. She didn't respond to the questions because she was taken aback. My mother was asking about her cancer… and now she had a new cancer to fight. She was disoriented in the face of a new disease.

    We all–as family–take care of each other in all stages, in different ways. Yes, both my grandmothers will probably need live-in help someday soon, and, yes, my dad will probably have arrange for his mother's care. My mother is diabetic and in very poor health. Someday I'll be arranging for her care.

    But it never stops. My paternal grandmother was caring for my mother even as she was facing a new and very frightening illness.

    'Round and 'round it goes…

  • I'm sorry to hear of your family's struggle, and thank you for sharing your story here. I hold up both of your grandparents, and all of your family, in prayer.

    I appreciate the message you bring here, which I read to mean that even as we, the young, assume responsibilities that the older generation can no longer handle on their own, we are still nurtured and cared for; we are thought after, and our well being is considered. This is what your paternal grandmother did for your mother, and I could probably find many moment where this has been done for me.

    My main concern about the situation, and this is something that certain members of my family cannot understand, was for the dog's well being. The dog is helpless, and unable to make decisions about what is best for it. It is completely reliant on people to be the smarter species, and I was afraid that my grandparents would simply not be able to do right by her.

    I may have been wrong.

    I brought the pup back yesterday. I shared some lessons, and they seemed to pick up on them. The dog was already better off than when we'd picked her up, and she was able to do a number of things she hadn't done before (staying down in stead of jumping up, going in a crate without barking). We'll see. But, as I wrote, in this case I feel that they deserve the opportunity to succeed at this.

    Thank you again for your comment, and for opening up your life to us.