Grandpa in the House: Stuck in Intergenerational Traffic

The Family Car: AKA Chauffeuring Dad While My Son is Losing It

Traffic lights- not so much the main issue anymore.

“I wish we did not have to drive so long. Can we turn around, that way, west, and go home?” My four year old is pointing behind us, back towards our house. I am impressed by his sense of direction but my joy in his new found skill is short lived. We have a shopping trip to do. We have been in the car for five minutes and he is already ready to go home. This does not bode well.

I imagine most parents with young children dread the “shopping trip.” Before becoming a parent, I was convinced that the strangers I witnessed dragging their screaming children through a store were doing something wrong. Surely they should not be subjecting their child – or the rest of us shoppers – to such torture.

I still think it’s torture, but I now do it too. Sometimes I can leave my son at home or preschool. But I often need to bring him with me. And I’ve come to believe that practice in patience is good for him.

The practice in thinking of others is good for him too. I explain that we are helping Grandpa by taking him shopping because he cannot drive himself. “When I’m a grown up, I will drive you places!” His huge smile is adorable and I am proud that he is developing into a thoughtful and empathetic child. I, however, am not so empathetic. I am royally annoyed that much of a beautiful autumn day is to be spent driving, shopping, and unloading for my dad.

Driving an elderly loved one is surely not unusual. But this is not a new obligation for me. My father stopped driving in his 60s, two decades ago, when I was in high school. I became his chauffeur. I moved away for college and every flight home included the obligatory car rental, paid by me, to ensure my dad could stock up on groceries and I could help him unload it all. He took the bus the rest of the year but my visits allowed for the type of trip only a car and young arms could provide. This was the most prioritized event in any of my visits. I was frequently reminded that a big shopping trip was needed before I left. I tried to ignore these requests by running off to my friends’ houses and taking walks on the beach. But the day of “the trip” always arrived.

I guiltily moved 3,000 miles away from my parents for a reason, and it was not my choice of college. I needed to experience a youth free of obligation. I tried to mimic the organic self-centered and carefree approach to life that my new friends seemed to carry through their days. Even so, I earned the nickname “Mama Wendy.” I was a 40 year old soul in an 18 year old body. Ironically, I was quite sure that I would never become a parent myself. There was no way that I could voluntarily become a caregiver again.

That has changed and I am thankfully supremely happy and at peace with my obligations to my son. I don’t begrudge them in the least and enjoy doing them. I actually love the sense of being needed – by him. But my obligations to my father, even minor ones, still fill me with resentment and foreboding. They feel like a weight on my shoulders that I have tried for years to shrug off.

When I was still working outside of the home his need to be chauffeured to stores seemed such a huge scheduling nightmare. My husband and I always shopped on our ways home from work, one of us rushing to do the groceries, the other rushing to do the daycare pickup, and now we need to use our weekends going back to town to battle the crowds on those precious days we would previously have spent at home with our son. Or we would ask my dad to tell us what he needed so we could pick it up. But he often told us the day after we had been shopping because he had forgotten something. And he needed it…soon.

You see, there is little flexibility with my dad and his food. Sometimes he will switch what day he eats what (there is a rotation) to help us out. He does try to accommodate our needs to the best of his abilities. But he must have what he must have from the specific store that must be visited based on when a certain food must be eaten.

So, it was with intense relief that I planned our grocery trips as a stay at home mom. “I will now have so much time to take him shopping!” And become an artist, or garden, or shower. But as my son loves to say, “except, Mom…” Except that I now have my preschool aged son with me almost all the time. Becoming a stay at home mom and still not having enough time to get things done was a rude awakening to me. Stay at home moms who I previously judged silently as you complained about your life, forgive me! I was so naive.

Driving to one grocery store is an hour round trip minus the time shopping. My father tends to take 90 minutes to do his shopping, even when he says he won’t need to get much. Then there is the time I take unloading the groceries at home. That means one grocery visit takes at least three hours out of my son’s day. To a young child, this is an eternity of passive waiting.

One would think that shopping once a week is not such a burdensome task, as surely I also can do my shopping at the same time. But I often end up still needing to do a second trip. Making stops at multiple stores is something that I thought nothing of before having a child. But each transition in and out of the car and in and out of a cart drives me and my son closer to the edge of the tantrum cliff.

That, and my dad does not shop at the same stores I do. My shopping is driven by my budget, his by his highly specific list of needed items. A recent attempt to make my life easier and combine trips was met with a rebuttal. My father informed me that he needed to go shopping. I met his need with unusual positivity. “I do too!” I told him the store I planned to go to – there was a good sale and as we are now living on a single income we scour the circulars for deals.

“They don’t have the right size eggs.” This comment did not so much as make me pause. I grew up with one and only one size of eggs in our house. But it still annoyed me. So I suggested that he eat more of the smaller eggs to accommodate us. “I’ll think about it.” This is Dad code for “um, no.” As Aspies are prone to verbalize whatever comes into their minds and obsess when ritual is altered, I knew that I would hear about the eggs all week until the next shopping day.

We went to his store.

Ritual and strict routine is a fascinating part of the Aspergers personality. While difficult to live with it can be a positive in career settings as noted by Aspie blogger and professor Temple Grandin. More on this side of the Aspie personality is here.

Aspergers and driving can be a tricky combination. This is most documented with teens learning to drive and becoming overwhelmed by the stimuli. The UK even requires Aspies to report their condition when they apply for a driver’s license. Aspies like rules but the danger is in rules being inflexibly followed instead of a driver reading each situation as it happens, similar to how Aspies struggle to read emotion on faces. More on this here.

Living in a small town without public buses sparked my research into resources for seniors and their caregivers. In addition to faith communities and friends, there are resources in the Hilltowns for caregivers who need a break or elders who need help running errands. Local Councils on Aging (COA) often provide vans for seniors at a reasonable fee. Contact your local town office for details.

[Photo credit: (cc) Doug Wheller]


Wendy Somes

Wendy is an educator and history geek who lives in a century old summer cottage in Goshen with her family, dog, and two cats.  She recently left her work in museum education to become a full time stay at home caregiver to her young son and elderly father. Her column touches on the juggle of the sandwich generation and issues surrounding elders on the Autism spectrum.  When not playing, cleaning, cooking, or chauffeuring, she reads local history, mommy blogs, and celebrity gossip – but she will never admit to that last one.

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