A younger woman helps an older woman walk.

-Hiromi Aoyama, Communications Analyst –

Caregiving can take many different forms.

With the Keiro Caregiver Conference just around the corner, I look back at my family’s long-distance caregiving experience, as my grandparents lived on the other side of the ocean.

As a Shin-Nisei growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, I was always an ocean away from my grandparents in Japan. My family’s primary challenge in caregiving was keeping my grandparents socially active. Maintaining social ties for older adults is extremely important for overall health and quality of life. Studies show that having strong social ties can improve our odds of survival by 50%.

When my jichan passed away, my bachan was left alone in the five-bedroom, two-story house that he built. Her illness prevented her from going outside at all, except for taking out the trash or checking the mailbox. What kept her genki up until then was yelling at my jichan daily when he was being forgetful, and taking care of him. This home that they had built together, lived in, and raised a family in, without my jichan, was emptier now.

Being thousands of miles away, my mother found it difficult to directly provide care. The only thing she could do, which she did for almost five years, was talk to my bachan on the phone six mornings a week at 5:30 a.m. (night time in Japan). Bachan did not like to learn new technology, so an international phone call was the only way to reach her. They would talk about everything from the latest news to how the family was doing.

One morning however, my bachan didn’t pick up. My mother grew worried and asked her brother in Japan to check on her. These phone calls turned out to be a lifesaver. Bachan had broken her lower back due to osteoporosis and was unable to get up from bed. Without this daily contact, she could have passed away and no one would have realized it.

My bachan was hospitalized for nine months, but my mother’s calls with her continued – just in a different form. My aunt drove an hour each week to visit her and used LINE (a popular Japanese phone/texting app) to talk with my mom. Even though the family in Japan and the U.S. was busy, they wanted to keep my bachan from getting lonely. All of this regular contact helped her stay mentally sharp until the very end, when she passed away from severe osteoporosis.

During the last four years of my bachan’s life, I moved to Japan for work and lived much closer to her. Although I was a couple hours away from her house, I saw her more often than ever in my entire life. It was a precious time for me, and I am so thankful I got to spend time with her. We didn’t do anything too special – most of the time, we just did our own things in the house, but sharing the same space made all the difference. She always welcomed me with a big smile and a tight hug.

Spending time with grandparents is a valuable aspect of caregiving, building stronger intergenerational connections as well. Many grandchildren may not think of themselves as caregivers, but a caregiver is anyone who supports older adults in maintaining their quality of life.

Attending last year’s Keiro Caregiver Conference for the first time, I learned that the knowledge and resources offered are applicable to anyone who could become a caregiver one day, including younger people and grandchildren. I highly recommend attending this as a family, as each member can contribute his/her own form of caregiving to their loved ones.

Lastly, I really hope that all grandchildren out there will visit or call his/her jichan or bachan more often. The time spent together is precious and you can learn so much. Simply being there will make a difference for them.