4 Things Joan Lunden Recommends to Caregivers
Advocacy The former co-host of Good Morning America shares tips on staying connected as a long-distance caregiver and the importance of self-care.
A prolific author, award-winning journalist and beloved news anchor, Joan Lunden is also an advocate for caregivers. She’s well acquainted with the challenges, having spent over 30 years as the sole caregiver for both her mother, Gladyce, who suffered from dementia, and her brother, Jeff, who battled Type 2 diabetes, even though they lived across the country from her.
“I always felt guilty about not being able to be with them,” Lunden says of the years she lived on the East Coast co-hosting “Good Morning America,” while her family lived near Sacramento, California.
After leaving GMA, Lunden’s career and family life didn’t slow down. In 2005, when her brother passed away from complications from diabetes, Lunden was raising two sets of twins under the age of 10 and traveling as a spokesperson for healthy living. As she mourned her brother’s passing, she was tasked with caring for her then 87 year-old mother, whose dementia worsened until she passed in 2013.
The 65 year-old breast cancer survivor is dedicated to sharing the wisdom gleaned from half a lifetime of caregiving. She’s the official spokesperson for A Place for Mom, a senior referral service that helps caregivers place their loved ones in senior care communities, and the co-author of “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers.”
She spoke about the challenges of caregiving from a distance and remembering to also take care of yourself.
1. Keep in touch as a long-distance caregiver
Today, it’s exceedingly common for adult children to live away from their aging parents and provide caregiving from a distance.
Lunden believes there are ways to stay connected, even from afar.
“I’d send her little things—a photograph, a clip from a magazine, a postcard from the road,” she says. “It was just the idea that she got a little something that would make my mom feel like she was along with me.”
2. Make it count when you do visit
Especially with parents suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s, who might not be able to relate to your current life, Lunden suggests using past memories as a way to stay connected.
When visiting, “even if they can’t remember what they had for lunch or said ten minutes ago, if you show them pictures from your youth or their youth, they can talk for hours.”
This can have a positive lasting effect even after the visit’s over. “It allows all the people where your loved one is living to hear those stories, too. The more they know about your loved one, the more comfortable they can make them in their day-to-day life.”
3. Get your family on the same page
“Don’t wait for a crisis to hit. Have that family talk,” Lunden says. Even though it’s difficult to get everybody together, it’s of the utmost importance to devise a plan before a loved one’s health severely deteriorates.
“No matter how many siblings you have, look at each other and say, ‘How am I able to contribute to this?’” Lunden advises. “Someone may have the financial resources, another may have the available time, someone else might have the capacity to manage all the business stuff. Each one of those is a valuable component. Otherwise, this can really rip apart families.”
There’s no end to the practical matters that need minding, so being organized is invaluable, Lunden says, whether it’s big picture issues—establishing the power of attorney or the stipulations of a living will—or daily concerns, like making sure you’re in touch with your loved one’s doctors and educated about their treatment.
4. Take care of yourself, too
“I think it’s so easy to get focused on the person you’re caring for that some people forget they also need to take care of themselves,” Lunden says. “If you look at the statistics, people who are caregivers to others tend to fall into worse health and have shorter life spans than their non caregiving counterparts.”
In order to avoid that pitfall, keep the emotional relationship separate from the “physical to-do list” of caring for your loved one, Lunden says. “Otherwise, sometimes when they overlap, it’s an overload.”