How I Got My 82 yo Nana to Move With Me to Spain
And why I wanted to go on an adventure with her
My 82-year-old Irish-American Nana only knows two words in Spanish:
But now that we live in Barcelona, she’s determined to make meaningful connections with other human beings despite the language barrier.
She often corners people in elevators with an “¡Hola!” and then smiles brightly at them until they say something back. If they answer with anything other than “Hola, Buenas”, Nana turns her shining eyes to me and expects a translation.
If I hesitate, she begins speaking to them in English with no regard for what they actually understand. Now everybody’s looking at me for a translation and I’m about to have a heart attack.
This is very stressful for me.
But the point is that she’s happy.
I’m a 28-year-old freelance writer from San Francisco who moved to Barcelona with my parents and my grandmother in 2017.
Before you start assuming I’m one of those millennials who never left the nest (not that there’s anything wrong with that in this economy!), let me just say that I’d been independent from the moment I left home at 18.
I had my own apartment in the Sunset district in San Francisco with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean. I made my living as a tour guide.
In 2014, my parents decided to open up their own Functional Medicine Practice and they asked me to come on board to do their social media, community managing, and administrative work.
Starting a business with my parents changed the dynamics of our relationship entirely.
They were savvy enough not to treat me like a daughter but like a partner. I had almost as much say in the every-day decision-making as either of them and together, we learned how to open up and run a business.
We felt like three best friends embarking on an adventure together. And we were noticeably improving the lives of our patients. It was incredible.
But in 2017, my parents started to get distracted.
Several of their good friends and former colleagues had developed cancer out of nowhere and were passing away. They seemed to be dropping like flies.
One of these friends was Dr. Lee Lipsenthal, who authored a life-affirming book right before he died called Enjoy Every Sandwich: Living Each Day as If It Were Your Last. He was slated to go on The Daily Show to promote his book when he suddenly took a turn for the worse.
I highly recommend the book. It’s a quick read and it’ll give you an existential jolt (Nana’s read it twice). And I think it definitely had some influence on our decision to change our lives so drastically.
Meanwhile, my grandfather’s health was failing.
Boba and Nana lived in Tucson, so it was hard for us to get back there every time he was hospitalized, but in his last few years, it became clear that he wasn’t the only one having issues.
Nana had taken care of him for so long -since his kidney transplant 21 years earlier- that it hadn’t occurred to us that she might no longer be able to take care of herself.
Throughout my entire childhood, she’d been a voluptuous Mrs. Weasely-type but she’d dropped about 100lbs in less than a year and she didn’t even seem to notice.
One year, she lost her balance at a Christmas tree lot and cracked her head open and broke her arm. It was several years before we discovered she’d had a stroke.
Our infrequent visits made her memory loss and physical deterioration far clearer to us than it was to her, yet she was determined to remain independent. Family trait.
Boba died in November of 2016 and I think that was the final straw for my mother. Her father’s death wasn’t a surprise, we’d had 21 years of being grateful for every extra moment with him, but the sheer amount of death in our lives had her reconsidering how we were living.
She started questioning everything:
Are we living our best lives?
If one of us got cancer tomorrow or got hit by a bus… what would we do?
Would the practice survive?
Would we be able to continue living in San Francisco?
Are our lives here sustainable?
How are we going to take care of Nana?
Should we move her to San Francisco? Her osteoporosis would mean she’d be stuck inside. She’d never be able to navigate those hills.
This sort of thinking led my mom to start casually googling cheaper places to live. Eventually, she got curious about cheaper places outside of the US.
Places that would awaken our souls and make whatever time we had left feel like a whole extra lifetime.
Her searching became less casual as she began to formulate a plan.
Nana thought the idea was silly.
She had too much to do to go traipsing off across the world. She had to clean the house. She had to finish painting the kitchen cabinets that had been left unpainted for 10 years. She had to wait for a sign from Boba’s ghost. If she left their townhome, surely she would be leaving him behind as well. The right side of the brown faux-leather couch was still worn down and discolored from 21 years of him sitting there.
But the more we learned about Barcelona, the more sense it made to us.
A recent expat survey of the top countries to live and work ranked Spain #2 in quality of life. Only New Zealand outranked it (but they have hobbit holes, so obviously).
- There were fresh food markets on nearly every corner in Barcelona. Nana could get daily exercise by walking to the store.
- I could cook fresh meals for her every day so she wasn’t nibbling on toast like she had been for the past several years.
- She’d be under the constant medical care of my parents.
- Healthcare in Spain is free, even for expats. We’d be covered in case of an emergency.
- My parents could sell her townhome in Tucson (they owned it) and use the profit to help with the move.
- We could keep seeing our patients over webcam.
The more we expressed our excitement to Nana, the more intrigued she became. Eventually, she agreed to join our adventure team.
We became four.
Packing up and letting go of the townhome ended up being a therapeutic and healing experience for her and for us. She kept what was most important to her and said goodbye to the rest. Turns out Boba could exist for her outside of that house — and so could she.
And now she insists that she should have been born a Spaniard.
People here are kind to her. Extraordinarily kind. Frankly, I’m still shocked at how often strangers will go out of their way to help her here. It’s exposed a disdain for the elderly that I wasn’t aware Americans had.
Whenever I express my surprise to locals, they shrug and say exactly the same thing, “That will be me someday.”
She still can’t speak the language and her memory will probably never recover to the point where she’ll be able to learn, but she delights in playing charades.
One day, I was busy with work and running low on cat litter (I brought my cats from SF), so she went to the store across the street to find some for me. The cashier didn’t understand her when she asked where the cat litter was. She huffed, trying to find the words until finally she just said,
I wasn’t there, but she assures me that the cashier burst out laughing, walked her over to the correct aisle, and placed the heavy litter in her cart for her.
Living in a three-generation flat isn’t always easy.
And taking care of an elderly woman is a LOT harder than I anticipated. We fight over stupid stuff. We get irritated with each other a lot. She forgets things and simple tasks like leaving the house for a doctors appointment take soooo loooong. But the whole city shuts down on Sundays, so we take the opportunity to catch up, look over the books, work out roommate issues, and support each other. My two siblings back in the states have taken to joining these meetings over Skype.
6 months into the move, Nana was diagnosed with breast cancer.
The Spanish healthcare system was a godsend. She had an emergency double mastectomy and 5 weeks of radiation treatment. It was rough, but Nana kept a lighthearted attitude.
By the end of her treatments, she was never without a male nurse on each arm. She’d sing show tunes all the way down the hall as they escorted her to the radiation room.
On her last day, they all got together to write her a goodbye note in English. Now she’s cancer-free and almost completely recovered, except that she misses her nurses.
If we had stayed in San Francisco, that whole ordeal might have meant the end of our medical practice. We could have lost our business, possibly our respective apartments, with nowhere to go and no plan.
We might have had to move into Nana’s townhome in Tucson to take care of her. Boba’s empty space on the couch would have been a constant reminder of everything we’d lost.
My mom’s instinct got us out just in time.
My parents have continued to lose close friends to cancer since we moved. They’re up to 5 now. But we’re as healthy as we’ve ever been and as tight a family as you’ll ever meet. And we haven’t lost Nana.
Or as she now prefers to be called-