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    Westkill, a mountain in the Catskills, NY

    Dances with the Daffodils

    Intergenerational Care on the Bruderhof

    By Carmen Hinkey

    January 13, 2021
    • MaryMargaret Grillo

      Thank you for Dancing with the Daffodils. It was a journey back in time to my sisters, brother and I caring for our mother the last five years of her life. She died with such dignity and grace. Some days seemed overwhelming but God's love was apparent in the journey. Thank you for this gift today.

    • Bonnie P Biocchi

      This is beautifully written and evoked many wonderful feelings of caring for elderly people I have loved. If someone in the church wants to start a movement that will pay dividends for every generation and will impact our nation, starting with taking care of our seniors would be a good place to start. We need to change the conversation about aging.

    • Diana

      How life is celebrated. Thank you.

    My mother-in-law came to live with us when she was ninety-one years old and our house was still full of teenagers. She arrived at a time in our lives when we needed her. The opportunity to care for her provided focus for me and my husband, and allowed our children to really know their grandmother, who had always only visited.

    Gram, as she called herself, and the affectionate moniker we all adopted, was a fun grandmother to be around. Born in 1919 on a New Jersey fruit farm on the shores of the Delaware River, she came of age during the Great Depression. Her father’s people had successfully farmed land bought in 1838 from Chief Cinnaminson, property that is still in the family today. Her mother came from a family in the hotel business in Atlantic City that also owned a summer home in the Poconos, and family lore says she was the first woman in New Jersey to acquire a driver’s license.

    The second daughter of this settled Quaker family, Mary Roberts Taylor knew hard work and good fun, and loved life on the farm. The farm amply provided what the family required, and “we had plenty of everything, except money,” she often quipped. Her next line was that there was always ice cream: they made it regularly. From her mother she inherited a fiery spirit and boundless energy that earned her the nickname “Pepper,” quickly shortened to Pep, which stuck her whole life (until it gave way to Gram). She enjoyed the family’s various river craft, sailing up and down the tidal Delaware, summers in the Poconos and on the Jersey shore. Inherent to this wholesome upbringing was the Quaker-style worship that planted the seeds of conviction and deep faith.

    Overnight our attention shifted from our own preoccupations to seeing that her waning years were filled with delight and love, cheer and adventure.

    Pep attended Westfield Friends School, and then Moorestown Friends, where she excelled academically. An eighth-grade social studies teacher, David Richie, awakened her social conscience. His influence eventually prompted her to look outside her comfortable Quaker life for a way to live out the childlike faith of her formative years. Eschewing the traditional post-secondary track through Bryn Mawr, Wellesley, or Vassar, all institutions easily within academic and social reach, she chose instead to enroll at Oberlin, establishing physical remove from what had become a set of stifling expectations for a proper young Quaker woman of her time. She participated in intramural sports, including basketball and field hockey, and completed a degree in liberal arts. There, she also met her future husband, and they married in 1940. Wendell Hinkey was an architect and a Cornell-educated botanist, later becoming a social worker in response to their shared conviction that Christian discipleship needs physical manifestation. Their search eventually led them to the Bruderhof, where they became members in 1955. They had seven children, and established an energetic and welcoming home, always open to their many friends.

    Pep’s years in the Bruderhof, from 1954 until her death in 2016, were rich and profound, and included deep sorrow. In 1960, she and her husband Wen lost their five-year-old son to a sudden viral encephalitis. The death of their son contributed to additional tragedy: the end of their marriage. The grief of this dual tragedy shaped every day of the rest of her life, even as forgiveness and grace lead to profound peace in later years.

    an old woman in a wheelchair looks at the view from a mountaintop

    Grandma Pep in her beloved Gunks, the Shawangunk Mountains of New York State. Photo courtesy of the author

    Stereotypically, our relationship should have been strained. Indeed, advice columns are full of stories about daughters and their mothers-in-law – the tensions, the stress, the disagreements, the unrealized expectations. But for us it was different, and the credit is entirely hers. Of course she was no stranger, but our interactions had been limited, so sharing our home on a daily basis was new. At ninety-one, she had had bilateral knee-replacements and one hip replacement, and she used a rollator in the house to get around. Short-term memory loss, not unusual at all in a nonagenarian, was handled with a sigh and a chuckle, and “I’ll tell you next week!”

    Gram had a nice, large ground-floor room with a window view she enjoyed from her rocker, as well as from her bed. A small table allowed her to write cards to old friends; a lifetime of knitting had kept her fingers nimble. An accessible bathroom with a roll-in shower was just steps away, fully equipped with bars and a non-skid floor. I provided light assistance with her activities of daily living (known to caregivers as ADLs), but she was able to do almost everything herself.

    It is a black mark on society, rather than on overwhelmed individuals, that it has to a great degree lost the resources to care for its aged members in the manner they deserve.

    In fact, the first few years that she was with us, she required very little care, while completely changing the tenor of our home. Overnight our attention shifted from our own preoccupations to seeing that her waning years were filled with delight and love, cheer and adventure. My husband made an all-terrain wheelchair, designed to break down and fit in the back of a vehicle. She was able to get herself into the front seat of an SUV (making use of a skyhook and a helpful shove), riding shotgun while a couple of the kids piled behind, enjoying an evening drive through Greene County in upstate New York. On autumn weekends, we would go into our beloved Shawangunk Mountains, taking advantage of the miles of well-maintained carriage roads. Her appetite for the outdoors was boundless, and included well-bundled forays into a good winter snowstorm to experience nature’s extremity as well as its beauty. “You’re not old if you still love winter!” she always said. And then there were the summertime excursions to a nearby mountain stream, where we would push her wheelchair carefully into knee-deep water, drawing shocked stares from passing hikers.

    In those first years after Gram moved in with us, we were clearly the beneficiaries, enjoying the excursions and her company, and the profound privilege of getting to know her in a more substantial manner. The day came, however, a few months after her ninety-fifth birthday, when she required full nursing care. An episode of heart failure and the ensuing weakness and disability completely upended the rhythm of our days.

    For a week we did not know how things would develop; she was prepared and ready to go, and we tried to be. Her once-bright eyes dulled, and she gazed with longing at the old black-and-white photo of her forever-five-year-old son that had always been by her big chair. Her breathing became labored, and she was no longer able to use the shower or bathroom, even with assistance. We rearranged her room, removing her small writing table and the extra chairs, and adding a bed for one of my daughters to sleep in at night. Two of Gram’s other granddaughters joined us, one an experienced nurse, the other an aspiring one.

    Such a moment is where many families, who have the best intentions in the world toward elderly parents, but who face very real limitations over which they have no control, are forced to cede the last years of filial love and care to strangers in institutional environments.

    This year elder-care facilities have come under scrutiny, and stories of negligence and abuse have made the headlines. Typically, this is not the fault of the caregivers themselves. The condition into which institutionalized care has fallen, at least in the publicly funded sector, has appalled me for years, yet until our national healthcare system undergoes complete transformation, I fear that not much will change. An August 2020 article in The Nation titled It’s Time to Abolish Nursing Homes covers the history of institutional care and details why it has deteriorated to such an astonishing degree. As I read this and similar accounts, I could not dismiss this thought: it could have been us, it could have been our mother. That we were able to care for her at home is entirely due to the support of our community and the grace of her own commitment in communal discipleship. I understand, sadly and almost guiltily, how caregivers without such reinforcement find that their only choice is to place parents into institutional care. It is a black mark on society, rather than on these overwhelmed individuals, that it has to a great degree lost the resources to care for its aged members in the manner they deserve.

    I loved caring for her in every way, finally able to give a small portion of all I owed to her.

    I had never cared for a completely dependent adult, and without my nieces’ patient instruction and the support of my community – equal parts emotional and practical – I would have been at a complete loss. We developed a new daily rhythm; many of my own tasks were adjusted to allow me to care for Gram. Additional equipment and devices provided by the community’s clinic enabled us to practice safe-patient handling, hurting neither Gram nor ourselves. Endless bundles of linen sent to the communal laundry department came back fresh and carefully folded. The same kitchen staff who fed the entire community sent personalized tasty meals, which Gram enjoyed as much as she had appetite, and I myself only cooked a handful of meals a week for her. When my youngest daughter, who with her cousins had shouldered much of their grandmother’s care, graduated high school and moved out to begin post-secondary education, other community women helped fill the hole she left. Our own doctor came to see her, encouraging all of us that keeping Gram comfortable and joyful was as important as bedsore prevention. Small children came to visit, ready to sing a song or present flowers crushed in their fists.

    Gram accepted her extreme new limitations without a murmur; on the contrary, she radiated gratefulness. I learned other important lessons as well, caring for someone so utterly dependent. I learned not to dismiss her thanks after personal care with “It’s nothing,” which implied that caring for her was not important to me. Instead, I tried to affirm her dignity, responding, “You are so welcome, Gram.” I loved our new relationship; I loved caring for her in every way, finally able to give a small portion of all I owed to her. No profession in the healthcare field ever attracted me, and I never anticipated I would be involved in someone’s care as I was in hers. But being part of her last years remains one of the great gifts of my life.

    Gram stayed with us another eighteen months, almost entirely in her bed. Her weakness extended to her fingertips, so her knitting and card writing were set aside. She slept much of the day, and when she was awake, she gazed out of her window. She regularly did what she called “pulling a Wordsworth,” where she drew on the poet’s lines:

    I wandered lonely as a cloud
    That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
    When all at once I saw a crowd,
    A host, of golden daffodils;
    Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
    Fluttering and dancing in the breeze. . . .

    For oft, when on my couch I lie
    In vacant or in pensive mood,
    They flash upon that inward eye
    Which is the bliss of solitude;
    And then my heart with pleasure fills,
    And dances with the daffodils.

    All those outings, years and years of outdoor activities, were recalled in complete contentment. And every day, my husband made sure the birdfeeder outside Gram’s window was refilled, a routine that included a morning kiss and a few minutes’ visit. She could watch the birds and the competing squirrels for long periods, and was rewarded by sightings most of us missed. She called the birdfeeder her television, well aware of its superiority to mass media. As the months that Gram lingered stretched into a second year, we were able to use a transfer device that enabled access to a reclining wheelchair, and venture out of doors. Long drives were certainly a thing of the past, but the sun on her face could not be bested.

    In this moment of deep acknowledgement, there was a glimpse of eternity.

    Our neighbors in the multi-family dwelling house included small children who came in almost every evening to say good night to Gram. It became a ritual for some, without which bedtime was incomplete. One of the families in our house was expecting a new baby, and when the mama slipped into Gram’s room one morning and whispered into her ear that it was the big day, Gram glowed with anticipation. It was the birthday of the child she had lost, and I sensed that the arrival of this neighbor child brought Gram’s own son into sharper focus and renewed her connection to him. When the mother returned a few days later, she laid her newborn son into Gram’s arms. In this moment of deep acknowledgement, there was a glimpse of eternity.

    An elderly woman looking out a window

    Grandma Pep at home, nearing the end of her life Photo courtesy of the author

    The years I spent with Gram gave me a profound understanding of the vows I had made to the community as a young adult. As described in Foundations of Our Faith and Calling, inherent in our commitment to communal discipleship in Christ is our commitment to mutual care:

    Our life together gives us opportunities to show love to one another at every stage of life, from welcoming a newborn baby to attending older brothers and sisters in their last years. Deeds of love are not routine but personal – a matter of following Christ’s command to “wash one another’s feet.” We want to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”

    In doing this, we seek to remember especially those with burdens to carry: widows and widowers, orphans, the disabled and sick, those with mental and emotional ailments, and those who are lonely. Then Jesus’ promise will come true: that everyone who has left family and home for his sake will receive back “a hundredfold . . . houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands.”

    Our mother had been a widow for many years. She had lost a child; she had borne the unimaginable. Jesus’ promises were kept for her, and she was surrounded not only by her biological children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, but also by brothers and sisters in her community, children, infants, and teens. She loved them all, and they loved her. And when she died months before her ninety-seventh birthday, we celebrated her life in a spirit of joy and deep thankfulness.

    Contributed By

    Carmen Hinkey is a member of the Bruderhof and lives at the Mount Community in New York with her husband.

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