Charles Mullenix noticed he had missed calls just as his phone died. From his dad. From his mom. From his girlfriend, Grace Hiddleston, who was also a Miami senior at the time.
He didn’t think much of it. It was just a regular Thursday last fall, and he was on his way to his apartment after class. He put his dead phone away and kept walking.
Once he got home, he grabbed a garbage bag full of sparring gear and trekked to a gym several streets away from his apartment. He was the president of the Miami University Martial Arts Club, but he was going to be late to practice.
Charging his phone could wait. Probably.
Charles lugged the gear through the entrance of the gym. Through the glass window of the door, he could see Grace standing inside. He knew something was wrong. Grace wasn’t in the club, yet there she was.
“Where has your phone been?” Grace said. “I haven’t heard anything from you.”
“Oh, it’s dead,” Charles said.
“We have to go to the hospital,” Grace said. “We need to go right now.”
He thought of his grandma, Ann Reitz. It’s probably Nan.
He dropped the gear.
As usual, Rachel Martin had a set schedule for the day. As a junior studying marketing and entrepreneurship, she schedules every minute of her life on campus in advance.
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On what would have been a normal Tuesday last February, Rachel was on an elliptical at Miami’s recreation center. There was finance homework to do and a horse waiting to be mounted at her equestrian class after she finished her workout.
She didn’t plan for her dad, Lee, to call her. They usually talked two times each day to check in, but not while she was pumping handles back and forth on an exercise machine.
It was about Rachel’s grandpa, Loren Jahn. Her grandpa had an abdominal aortic aneurysm that doctors said would eventually burst, but they didn’t know when it would happen. Lee called to tell Rachel that “when” was now. Her grandpa was in the hospital, and that Tuesday would be his last.
A month later, Rachel was alone in her dorm room when Lee called her around 7 p.m.— again, unexpectedly.
It was about Rachel’s grandma and Grandpa Loren’s wife, Jane Jahn. She had been bedridden after her husband died. Stopped eating. Stopped responding.
On this day, she didn’t open her eyes.
“Can I call you back?” Rachel said. “I need a minute.”
She cried into her hands.
Then she wiped her tears away and picked up the phone.
There are more grandparents than ever who are living longer than ever, which means they’re likely to die when their grandchildren are already adults.
According to Dr. Kimberly Ogle, a Miami gerontology professor who was previously a funeral home director, the aging baby boomer generation will need a 30 percent increase in caregivers.
People in past generations generally followed the same blueprint for life: get a job, live on your own, get married, have kids, retire and die.
But millennials, or people who were born between 1981 and 1996, are delaying or even erasing traditional markers of adulthood, according to the Pew Research Center.
In 2018, 15 percent of adults between 25 and 37 years old still lived with their parents. This is double the percentage of when baby boomers and the silent generation were the same age, but who are now respectively between 55 to 73 years old and 74 to 91 years old.
Millenials are also putting off marriage. In 1960, most people married in their early 20s. Rachel’s grandparents, who were both born in 1925 and grew up together, fit this trend, and so d0 Charles’ grandparents. In 2016, men are marrying closer to the age of 30 while women are marrying at 27.
Some are not marrying at all. In 1960, one in 10 U.S. adults over 25 years old had never been married. In 2012, that ratio widened to one in five adults. Neither Rachel or Charles expect to get married, though Charles and his girlfriend Grace are still in a serious relationship.
And fewer women are having children. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that the U.S. birth rate was 16 percent below what it would take to replace the population.
Both Rachel and Charles say they may want kids in the future, but they are more focused on their careers right now.
The same statistics are still unknown for Generation Z because its members, including Charles and Rachel, are currently between 7 and 22 years old. But Gen Z-ers often share the same social views as millenials and are likely to follow similar trends.
The new life plans are that there are no plans. The two generations are tearing up the blueprint, or at the very least putting off traditional milestones of adulthood.
But ready or not, no one can delay the death of a loved one. Caring and grieving for grandparents is the single milestone that is propelling people toward adulthood rather than away from it, and supporting newly-orphaned parents is part of this process.
The day her grandpa Loren died, Rachel stayed up late waiting on a call from her mother, Martha. Rachel was more worried about her than anyone else in the family.
Martha is the ever-strong family matriarch. She helps plan every family function with her siblings and their families. In the last year, she cared for her parents while preparing for her own retirement.
Martha was the one who had planned doctors appointments for her parents and attended many of them herself. She eventually switched the doctor’s appointment calls to her phone number instead of her parents’ home phone so they wouldn’t miss any.
Martha started balancing her parents’ checkbook after her dad donated three times to the same charity because he forgot that he had already given the organization money.
She paid the 24/7 caregiver. Towards the end, emergencies like broken hips would happen regularly. The caregiver wouldn’t know what to do, so she started calling Martha 24/7.
Martha watched her father die, and not quickly like doctors had promised. Grandpa’s aneurysm was a slow leak. A death that lasted hours.
At first, he was still and white from blood loss. His whole face froze, not blinking. A nurse called the time of death and stepped out of the room with Martha’s oldest brother.
Martha stayed for a moment to cry privately. The room was silent until her father’s body started gasping for air.
Martha, tears staining her face, pulled the nurse back in. The body continued gasping and seizing for an hour, trying to keep pumping blood and fluids through itself.
“The organs don’t know the person has passed,” Martha said.
When she called Rachel that night, Martha’s tears made her incoherent.
On the other end of the phone call, Rachel wiped away her tears and hid the shakiness in her voice.
Martha had done enough. It was time for Rachel to step up.
Rachel doesn’t want to forget what her grandma was like when Rachel was a kid.
Her grandma used to slip Halls cough drops into little Rachel’s hands so Rachel could suck on them while she was bored in church. Back then, she had to look up to meet her grandma’s bright blue eyes and admire her glossy white hair while sitting next to her in the pews. Rachel’s grandma was the kind of plump that’s nice to hug and had a kind face that said, “I’ll listen to you forever, and I’ll love you forever,” without words.
Rachel doesn’t want to remember the way her grandma looked the last time she saw her in the nursing home.
Heart disease swelled her grandma’s limbs. Her legs were bloated like frozen water bottles and capped with blue feet. Her skin crusted and flaked, hiding rashes under rolls of skin.
During Rachel’s summer and winter breaks, she would help take care of her grandma with her mother. They helped her bathe, washed her skin and scrubbed her feet with a toothbrush.
Without Grandma’s weekly hair appointments, her usually fluffy, bright hair laid flat on her head. While Rachel brushed her grandma’s hair, she realized she could only talk at her grandma rather than have a back-and-forth conversation because of her dementia. It reminded Rachel of how she gushed at and murmured to the horses she worked with in her equestrian class.
Ogle says dementia adds another layer of difficulty to caring for family members.
“It’s difficult to care for the people you loved that no longer are the people that you loved,” Ogle said.
Aging patients with dementia are more likely to need care for other physical and mental health issues, not just memory loss, according to a 2017 report from the National Alliance for Caregiving.
This was the case for Nan, Charles’ grandma. Charles first noticed her memory was starting to go in high school, when she walked into the living room one Christmas and called him by the wrong name. He caught it before she did, and then she brushed it off.
Her dementia had scattered her memories for 15 years, but her death still surprised the family.
Nan was held in a unit for dementia patients at McCullough-Hyde Memorial Hospital. Neither hospital staff or Nan’s own family could tell the difference between her mental distress from being in an unfamiliar place and her discomfort from a urinary tract infection that turned into sepsis.
Nurses didn’t discover the blood infection until Nan’s vitals tanked.
The missed calls. Charles knew for sure when he got in Grace’s car.
They arrived at the hospital, but aides still had to verify that Charles was family before they let him in the room to join his dad, sister, grandpa and his mom, Liz.
When they finally let Charles in, he saw that Nan was too still, and Liz couldn’t stop crying.
The family drove to Charles’ parents’ home in Oxford, Ohio, and sat around the dinner table with some close friends. Liz struggled through a large glass of whiskey — straight just like Nan drank it — to honor her mother in a small way. Every time Liz took a sip, the corners of her lips pulled back in disgust, and Charles and his dad implored her not to finish it.
Over the next week, Charles focused on listening to and supporting his parents in little moments like these.
“I was grieving for my family more than I was grieving for [Nan],” Charles said.
His first memory of her was when she called him a “little shit” for breaking something porcelain in the kitchen. Just as Charles started to value and understand adults as a 17-year-old, it was too late to get to know Nan.
“I had some fundamental misunderstandings about how the world works and what’s actually important, and I need to take that more seriously and start to re-evaluate those,” Charles said.
He hopes to never make the same mistake again.