Becoming a caregiver can change your life and bring unexpected financial and emotional burdens. Journalist Joan Lunden says it doesn’t need to be so hard.
When journalist Joan Lunden got the call that her mother would require round-the-clock care due to her dementia, Lunden knew her life would change forever.
Lunden, who co-hosted “Good Morning America” for nearly two decades and has since published many bestselling books, acted as caregiver to both her mother and her brother, who was living with Type II diabetes. After her brother died, her mother’s dementia progressed, requiring specialized care. “When I first moved my mom into a senior community, I moved her into one where she was just going to be in an apartment,” Lunden said. “She could not flourish in that environment. She couldn’t remember people’s names, so she would get embarrassed and frightened.”
Photographs and feelings
Once Lunden found the appropriate care for her mother, she visited often, as the doctors recommended. “I would make picture books of every picture I could find from when she was young,” she said. “She could sit and talk to me and look at those pictures for hours, but then she would look at me and say, ‘When’s lunch?,’ when she’d just had lunch. It’s the current memory that she just couldn’t recall.”
Lunden’s investigative instincts as a journalist helped her discover how best she could care for her loved ones. “You look in the refrigerator to see if the food is fresh,” she said. “You look in their bathrooms to see if they’re being compliant with taking their medications. I remember I used to take along those little nightlights that you get at the drugstore, and I would plug them in going all the way down the hall.”
A time of crisis
Taking on the responsibility of an aging or ailing loved one can seem like a solitary burden, but Lunden stresses that caregiving is becoming a national crisis. “By 2030, we’re going to have way more people over 65 than under 15,” she said. “If we keep people alive but they still contend with cognitive decline, it presents a very unique health crisis that we’ve never really had to deal with in the past. So this is a huge problem, nationally, as a health crisis and a financial crisis.”
Because of the constant stresses, caregivers can also neglect their own health. “They say that a person caring for others has a life expectancy that’s 10 years shorter than someone not working as a caregiver,” Lunden said. “When your whole focus is on caring for someone else, that’s when people don’t go for their own check-ups, their own mammograms, their own colonoscopies.”
Bewilderment and financial burdens
Lunden gained a new perspective on caregiving when she was diagnosed with cancer and required care herself. “It really opened my eyes to how emotionally bewildering it can be for an adult who’s lived this independent life their entire life, and all of a sudden, their children become their parents.”
Caregiving can also place immense financial stress upon families. “Unfortunately,” said Lunden, “what we find around the country is that many of these people are dipping into their own retirement funds in order to try to provide care for aging adults who didn’t plan on living an extra 20 or 30 years.”
While it can be difficult to begin end-of-life conversations with loved ones, Lunden said planning ahead is vital. “You don’t want to be making these decisions and dealing with difficult questions in the time of crisis,” she said. “I hadn’t had that family conversation, the importance of which is one of the main things I try to impart on every audience that I am in front of. As difficult as it may be to get it going with your siblings and family, have a plan.”