I’ve had the privilege of interviewing Joan Lunden several times over the last few years. She is an inspiration – as a woman warrior battling breast cancer, as a mom of seven (!!), as a successful businesswoman and as a caregiver to her mom whom she lost in 2013. I first met Joan on the set of a special TV program Joan hosted for RLTV, “Taking Care with Joan Lunden,” where Joan interviewed me as an expert on caring for an older loved one at home. The following is an excerpt from my book, A Cast of Caregivers – Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care, which includes Joan’s caregiving story.
Wake Up Call to Caregiving
For 17 years throughout the 1980s and 1990s, she woke us all with “Good Morning America” as co-host of ABC-TV’s national morning show. But, it was 10 years ago that Joan Lunden, the sunny, blonde, California-born and raised TV journalist received her own wake-up call.
She remembers it like it was yesterday. In her words, “It 100 percent shook me up.” It was back in 2005, that her brother Jeff, who had long suffered from Type II diabetes, passed away. Joan had been caregiving for both her ailing brother as well as her then 87-year-old mother, Gladyce.
While her brother suffered the ravages of diabetes – blurred vision, headaches, operations on hands and feet, etc. – her mother, Gladyce suffered from signs of dementia and had several mini strokes over the years. For both their safety and Joan’s peace of mind, she had purchased a condominium in the Sacramento, California area where Joan had grown up and paid for them both to live there together.
Meanwhile, Joan lived across the country with her home base on the East Coast where she was raising two sets of twins under the age of 10 with her second husband and playing “empty nest” mom to her three older daughters from her first marriage. In addition, she had not slowed down since leaving “Good Morning America” in 1997, traveling the country as a spokesperson on healthy living, authoring several books, and managing a growing business focused on healthy living.
Joan was both a Sandwich Generation caregiver – one of the 24 million Americans caring for children and a parent simultaneously and thus, sandwiched between caregiving duties – and a long-distance caregiver. More than 8 million caregivers care for a loved one long distance – whether they are two hours away or across the country as in Joan’s case. This makes caregiving more difficult – you are not there every day to see the small things which can be warning signs that something is changing and your loved one needs more care.
The Sunrise, Sunset of Alzheimer’s
Although she mourned her only brother’s passing, it was not his death that rocked Joan’s world. It was the realization that her mother’s dementia was so much worse than even she knew.
“My mom had ‘sundowners,’ a typical symptom of dementia and Alzheimer’s where the person becomes irritated, irrational and sometimes violent as the sun is setting,” explained Joan. She also showed signs of paranoia especially after Joan moved her mother into an assisted living facility.
“Mom was afraid to go downstairs and visit with the other residents, they frightened her and yet she could not tell us why,” said Joan.
Joan soon realized that she had been overlooking her mother’s real needs and issues. “It is easy to overlook things when you live far away from your loved one,” says Joan. “They put on a happy face and they seem fine and you may see small things but you want them to be fine.”
Alzheimer’s disease, which affects more than 5 million Americans today, can also be a sneaky disease. An older loved appears relatively healthy and fine physically but is suffering from dementia that can cause sudden mood shifts or other emotional problems, especially frightfulness and forgetfulness. It is only through the activities of daily living that one sees how critical proper care becomes. The long-distance care Joan had ben providing her mom had given her blinders to her mom’s real needs.
Joan encountered what I call “Goldilocks Syndrome” trying out several facilities before finally finding the right environment for her mother’s health needs and happiness. After Gladyce suffered several falls breaking her foot, her rib, then hitting her head and needing staples did Joan realize a specialized care facility would be necessary.
The social worker at the hospital where Gladyce was treated for her falls put Joan in touch with a senior care facility advisor. The advisor assigned to Joan assessed Gladyce’s needs and then took Joan and Gladyce on a tour of several facilities that she thought would work. They settled upon a small residential care facility with just six residents in a large home setting.
When Joan’s brother passed away, it was left to Joan to decide if her mother could continue living independently with some personal care assistance from an outside agency or a professional. In addition, Joan needed to go through all the paperwork for her mother that her brother had been handling. Joan, her brother and her mother had been a threesome as Joan grew up since her father was tragically killed in a plane crash when Joan was only 14.
Faced with a mass of paperwork and a lot of missing documentation, Joan got down to doing what she does best – investigating. As a journalist you have to be inquisitive and look for clues to the real story. In Joan’s case she had to search through mountains of paperwork and become an amateur genealogist to be able to help her mother. She could not access her mother’s bank account, she could not find a social security card or driver’s license, and she had nothing to go on except she knew her mother’s maiden name.
An elder law attorney that Joan had secured advised her to find her mother’s birth and marriage certificates. This would be verification for the Social Security office to issue her mother a duplicate card since Joan could not find the original.
In addition, Joan would have to have her mother authorize her as a co-signer on the bank account and grant her access to health insurance and other critical information that has privacy protection. Thank goodness in Joan’s case her mother was still lucid enough to authorize her daughter to help – in many caregiving situations the loved one can no longer provide that authorization and it becomes a costly and time-consuming legal burden for the caregiver to get this done.
“You think you know your parents but then something like this happens and you realize maybe you do not know as much as you should,” says Joan. This is especially true when it comes to verifying records and making decisions on their behalf.
In retrospect, Joan says, “I wish I had the family meeting before the crisis in care happened but I am typical. The crisis happened and all of a sudden you have to become an instant expert at so many issues around elder care.”
Joan’s advice to all caregivers, current and future, is to take a page from her long-running morning show career.
“Have the conversation, start the dialogue, do the interview with your loved one,” she advises. “And, most importantly, don’t stop communicating – talk to your loved one as often as possible, talk to their doctor, ask questions, talk to the facility administrators and health care professionals – stay on it . It is the most important tool you have – it keeps you connected to your loved one and to the essential care needs they have.”
Joan lost her mother in 2013 but is following in her energetic mother’s footsteps. Taking on a new role as a breast cancer survivor, Joan’s lifelong healthy eating habits now include a non-GMO diet. As the poster gal for 60 being the new 40, Joan says her caregiving experience has given her new insights into the message of “prepare for the worst and hope for the best.” Her inspirational attitude is captured in a book she co-authored about caregiving stories, Chicken Soup for the Caregiver’s Soul.
©2015 Sherri Snelling