TV journalist, author, and senior care advocate Joan Lunden offers advice to adults faced with helping their aging parents while often juggling careers and families of their own.
Could you share some thoughts regarding your experience as a long-distance Sandwich Generation caregiver?
I took over the care of my mother at a young age. When I became responsible for her total care at 50, I’d just remarried and was raising two sets of twins. There I was, changing diapers at the same time as I was caring for my aging mom. I was picking out strollers while also buying cars for my teenage girls and a wheelchair for Glady. There are tens of millions of people who are at some stage of parenting while simultaneously caring for aging parents.
How can caregivers deal with challenging times in a productive way?
When my brother died, my mom was 88 and was overcome with grief at losing her son/housemate. Her dementia had become worse, and she couldn’t live by herself. If only I’d talked to them about their health, their insurance, their banking, their business affairs, and their end-of-life wishes when they were healthy enough to be able to provide me the information. Most of us are not preparing for the inevitable, and this chapter of our lives is often one of the most trying times we ever face.
Was there a time you debated whether you could continue in the role?
There was never a point I questioned whether I could continue. I financed my mom’s and my brother’s lives for decades, until my brother passed away from type 2 diabetes at the age of 56. My mom was totally dependent on me to take care of her. She had been a fabulous mom raising me, and I would never have turned my back on her.
How did you deal with the stress, worry, and grief?
I was fortunate that, after two unsuccessful attempts, I found a wonderful small residential care facility, and I knew my mom was in the hands of one of the most loving and caring individuals I’d ever met, James Ashley. Caring for seniors was James’ passion. He put a smile on my mom’s face every day as she awakened. That allowed me to have a smile on my face as I put my head on my pillow every night, knowing mom was safe, well cared for, and, most importantly, happy.
Were there times you managed to find joy, despite the circumstances?
I found joy and happiness in being able to make my mom happy. I loved taking her to lunch at all her favorite restaurants, even though she wouldn’t remember in 20 minutes. I loved surprising her with gifts. It might just be a magazine she’d always loved, her favorite perfume, a fresh new nightgown, or a framed family photo.
What advice do you have for those who struggle to care for a loved one?
We all need to know where those important papers are — mortgages and titles, wills, and insurance policies. The day a trauma happens is not the day you want to figure this out. According to recent surveys, more than 138 million Americans believe they will need to provide care to someone in the future; however, the majority say they have not taken adequate steps to prepare for that possibility.
What should a person focus on to remain a loving caregiver?
Communication. One of the beautiful things about our parents growing older is that they can share with us what they learned about life and about the aging process. Often, these can be powerful nuggets of wisdom, hope, and, in the case of my mom, humor.
Of all the lessons I’ve learned through my years of caregiving, the most important one is to keep the love connection going, no matter whether you’re providing day-to-day care or overseeing care from afar. Even if they don’t seem to recognize you, just keep telling them you love them, again and again. You will never say it too much.