On every first date, there is a point when the other person asks me how I ended up in Northern California. Normally, this would be a basic getting-to-know-you question, but it always makes me tense. I am a single, 37-year-old woman who lives with her grandfather, and trying to make that sound sexy is a challenging task. Luckily, over the past several years I have gained a fair amount of practice. So now I just take a deep breath before launching into my standard explanation:
Four years ago, I came up here to hang out with my grandfather for the summer, because he has Alzheimer’s and was at that stage where he could use a little extra help. I planned to return to Los Angeles in the fall to finish my PhD, but I received a teaching assistantship that required me to be on campus only one day a week, so I decided to commute. The same thing happened the following semester — as well as the two after that — so I’m still here.
At this point, I usually pause for the “Oh, that must be so hard” comment that typically follows, and then I assure my date of how positively the experience has affected my life. Then I attempt to lighten the mood by offering up a funny story about my grandfather doing one-handed push-ups in his tighty-whities, or the time he thought an old tube of sexual lubricant was hair gel. I choose these lighter moments because I have found that talking about death, disease and the challenges of caregiving are surefire first-date conversation killers.
In part, I think this aversion to such topics is a product of my age group. According to a 2015 report from the Pew Research Center, the largest group of individuals providing unpaid care to a family member are between the ages of 45 and 64. Most of my dates are still too young to fall into this category, which makes it more difficult for them to connect with my experience or even speak in a meaningful way about it.
I also suspect that a great deal of their silence is a reflection of their growing trepidation about possibly having to perform a similar role for one of their own family members in the future. While less than 30 percent of American adults have or are currently serving as an unpaid family caregiver, two-thirds report that they expect to do so in the future. Add to this the fact that, as sociologist Bella DePaulo points out, single people such as ourselves are far more likely to assume a caregiver role than are family members with partners. Suddenly the deer-in-the-headlights look I sometimes get from my dates becomes even more understandable.
The truth is that caring for my grandfather has been both difficult and rewarding. As I have often explained, over these past few years I have grown much closer to my grandfather than I have ever been with any of my other family members. Because of his Alzheimer’s and what I refer to as his “5-minute loop,” I now know each of his stories by heart, meaning that his memories will live on with me forever, even though he and my father stopped speaking years ago. As I have written elsewhere, this experience has also, surprisingly, taught me to develop a healthier relationship with my body, and has encouraged me to hold my expectations surrounding others’ treatment of it to a much higher standard. Additionally, on a practical level, caring for him has also given me a realistic window into what it is like being responsible for another human being, such that I now feel relatively confident that if I do decide to have a child, I could probably keep it alive.
Of course, these gifts have not come without a price. Some of the challenges associated with this experience have been relatively small, such as figuring out how to tell my dates about my living arrangement to keeping my library books secure so that they don’t walk away in forgetful hands. However, some aspects have been more difficult to shoulder, such as when I fought with my coupled aunt to try to get her to recognize that my time is equally valuable, or when struggling with a lack of freedom in coordinating with my aunts and his other caregivers every time I want to have an overnight date. Even though I have been living in San Jose, for over four years, I still often struggle to feel connected with both my single and my coupled peers, for whom much of my life — caring for an elderly relative with Alzheimer’s — remains entirely foreign.
Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s can be extremely isolating. Which is why, even when I sometimes struggle to find the time or motivation to pull out my phone and open a dating app, I do so anyway in an effort to connect. Despite its sometimes painfully awkward moments, dating has helped me maintain my sanity. Without it, I would not be the patient and understanding granddaughter I do my best to be.