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Joan Lunden on Caring for a Parent with Dementia

Photo: Courtesy of Joan Lunden

Journalist Joan Lunden knows what it’s like to be a caregiver. Her mother had dementia and now Lunden wants to help others care for their loved ones.

“I just made a promise to myself that it shouldn’t be this hard,” says Joan Lunden. She has authored 12 books, and is a spokesperson for A Place for Mom; a free senior living referral service helping connect caregivers and families with resources to care for their loved ones. “There’s got to be a way I can become an advocate in this space and help others prepare a little bit better.”

Lunden’s brother Jeff, who had Type 2 diabetes, lived with their mother, Gladyce, in Sacramento. Lunden had been caring for both of them from afar. But when her brother died in 2007, Lunden quickly realized that her mom would need more than just a new living arrangement. She found a small residential care facility in Sacramento. It was able to provide her mother with the care she needed for her dementia.

The former “Good Morning America” co-host was struck with the same feeling many adult children have when they become caregivers.

“The day that role reversal happens and you become the parent, it doesn’t feel like a natural life progression,” she says. “It’s a weird feeling because you’ve spent your whole life being the child; now you’re the parent.”

Starting the conversation

Don’t wait for a crisis situation like a stroke or a fall to plan for an aging or ill parent’s future.

Lunden recommends adult siblings get together – without Mom or Dad – to talk about their parents’ “last chapter,” including financial sustainability, living arrangements and social connections. Discuss ways each adult child can help the parent, such as doing bookkeeping, running errands or driving them to doctors’ appointments.

Follow up with a meeting with the parents, using this approach: “I want to make sure that I help you figure out those years for you, to help guide you.”

Three things

Lunden says caregivers need three things: a signed HIPAA release giving medical staff permission to talk about the patient’s health; a durable power-of-attorney so you can make legal and financial decisions for the patient; and a living will or advanced health care directive, which differ state by state.

“A living will and advanced health care directive allow you to speak when you can no longer speak,” she says. Lunden explains that those documents will help the patient answer important questions, including:

  • “Do they want to be put on a respirator or feeding tube?”
  • “Do they want to donate their organs?”

Staying connected

Lunden, whose mother Gladyce died in 2013 at age 94, always made sure to talk a lot about the past. She made photo albums for her mother to reminisce. “Keep coming, and keep saying I love you, again and again,” Lunden says, recalling advice a caregiver gave her.

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