Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker: Cooking Up a New Caregiving Recipe

Sherri Snelling, our Caregiving Club CEO, spoke to actors Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker about their journey in caring for Jill’s mother who has dementia.   At the heart of their story is family and how “eat, pray, love” may be their new catchphrase when it comes to caregiving. 

What struck me the most when I spoke to Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker – her partner in marriage, career and life – was that in all things they are a team.  We even did the interview with the two of them together, at their suggestion, and it gave me a glimpse into how their special bond of support, respect and caring for each other is a recipe for all couples who face a tough caregiving situation.  In fact, their story is about love of family and food and the ingredients needed to keep it all cooking.  Jill and Mike are like salt and pepper shakers – two distinct personalities and characters – but you never pass one without the other.

We all watched them as one of our favorite TV couples in the 80s and 90s in their roles on the Emmy-winning series L.A. Law (what boomer woman can forget the famous Venus Butterfly episode?).  Since then, both Mike and Jill have thrived as solo artists – Mike as an actor and as an acclaimed author, and Jill as a continually sought-after star on stage and screen with her latest turn in the movie, Young Adult.   However, it is when they are performing together – whether it is playing the couple in Broadway’s Love Letters, or caring for Jill’s mother with dementia – that they really are at their best.

Our House in Umbria

For many years, New York City-based Jill and Mike, have been vacationing with friends – sometimes for weeks, other times for months – in the lovely Italian countryside in the Spoleto Valley of Umbria, Italy.  This is where the couple recharges – the sumptuous food that infuses Mike’s meals, the chilled wine, the warm people, the beauty of the olive trees and the vineyards versus the urban jungle – it is their version of Cinema Paradiso.

It was on one such trip about six years ago that Jill and Mike went from the calm of their Italian reverie into the storm of caregiving.  Jill’s mom, Lora, was 87-years-old at the time and had been living in a Santa Barbara, California assisted living facility for several years with her husband, Ralph.  Although Lora had been hard of hearing for over 40 years and had been experiencing some memory lapses, she was in pretty good health for an octogenarian.  But Jill had recently grown worried.  Her mom had started having paranoid fantasies according to Ralph and she had survived a fall, which according to the Centers for Disease Control puts two million seniors into emergency rooms every year, and Ralph was not in good health.  Just a few days into their latest Italian sojourn, Jill and Mike got the call that Ralph had died.

“All of a sudden I felt so far away,” says Jill.  She had been anxious of leaving her mom before this trip and now the guilt washed over Jill for not being by her mom’s side.   After Ralph’s funeral as the weeks rolled by, Jill’s daily phone calls to her mom could no longer bridge the 3,000-mile distance.   After a few in-person visits and more falls, it became clear to Jill that her mother needed more care. But, moving her into the assisted living’s dementia care center seemed wrong.  Jill still was not sure Lora was “there yet,” Lora would be isolated from neighbors and friends and as Jill says, “It just wasn’t family.”

While at first Mike felt some resentment as his Umbrian dreams were put on hold and his concerns mounted about the toll this would take on his wife, he said, “Jill’s focus was on her mom but my eye was on Jill.  My new job was to help her do the right thing.”

Mamma Mia!

One of the toughest decisions for caregivers, especially those 7-8 million long-distance caregivers of older parents, is wondering whether it is better to have them live in a special facility that can provide the care they need or move them into your home or closer to you so that you can care for them.

“My mom was calling people at all times of the night, wandering off and eventually got to a point where she was physically attacking the nurses caring for her after a bad fall,” says Jill.  “One night we went to dinner with our son Max and he said what I had been in denial about, ‘you have to move Lolo to New York City.’  At that moment I looked over at Mike and he just nodded and I knew this is what we had to do.”

Many caregivers of older parents, even those who are married or who have siblings who can help, often tell me they feel “all alone.”  While Jill is an only child, the secret ingredient in her caregiving situation is that she never had that feeling – she had Mike.

“It was a huge moment in that restaurant when I looked at Mike and I just knew no matter what, he was going on this journey with me,” says Jill.  “Believe me, the last thing Mike wanted to do was have my mother in our lives every minute.  Even though he loved her, Mike felt my personality changed, and not for the better, when I was around my mother.” Now, not only would Mike have Lora in the same city but he would have to live with the “two Jills.”

What came next is something almost all caregivers face because so few families have that essential caregiving conversation before a crisis hits.   In fact, only one-third of all caregivers have had any conversation with their older loved one about long term care.   Jill and Mike had to first become like two knights searching for artifacts during the Crusades – looking for the paperwork to close Lora’s bank and other accounts, dealing with Lora’s expired passport and driver’s license needed to get her on the plane to New York, finding a memory care facility in New York City, and the list goes on.  After the move to New York, it eventually became clear that although Lora needed almost constant care, the facility that Jill and Mike found for her was more like Shawshank Redemption than Shangri-La.

Caregiving As An Ensemble Show

The solution came when the apartment literally across the hall from Jill and Mike became available and they moved Lora (whom the family calls Lolo) in.  Around the same time both son, Max, and their daughter, Alison, from Mike’s first marriage, found themselves living in New York and helping out with caregiving duties.  Alison, who is a chef and personal caterer, cooks most of Lora’s meals, Max gives his parents some respite by playing companion to his grandmother (when he is not playing drums in his band) and two professional nurses round out the “a la famigla” that Mike had always envisioned as part of their Italian excursions but is actually now a dream come true in the Big Apple.

“We could not have planned it better but going through this experience really brought us together as a family,” says Mike.  Besides the familial ties, Mike believes his gifts from caregiving are that he and Jill have become even closer and that he is now more realistic about his future and how he will want his family to care for him.  Jill told me that she feels caregiving has taught her to “just let things happen and to not be in denial because it doesn’t serve you.”   She also feels it has improved the communication she and Mike have and his support has allowed her to really discover who she was through this experience.

Jill, Mike, their kids and Lora

As the “Tuckerberry” family gathered recently for Lora’s 93rd birthday, Jill and Mike have proven successful as both co-stars on screen, in life and in caregiving.  When I think of Jill and Mike, I think of Julia Child’s quote, “…nothing is too much trouble if it turns out the way it should.”

 

Sherri Snelling is writing a book on celebrity caregivers, A Cast of Caregivers, and the lessons of love and caring that will be published by Balboa Press, a division of Hay House Publishers in January, 2013. 

Michael Tucker’s book, Family Meals, details his and Jill’s caregiving journey and his first novel, After Annie was published this February.

Celebrity Caregiver Interviews

When it comes to caregiving, celebrities from TV, films, sports, news and music are just like the rest of us.  While some may have more financial resources available to them, they still face a fragmented health care system and experience the emotional roller coaster that is the caregiving journey.  Our Caregiving Club CEO Sherri Snelling has been interviewing these celebrities for articles and her new book to be published in 2013.  Read the latest Celebrity Caregiver Interviews below.

 

Glenn Close

Jodie Foster

Marg Helgenberger

Diane Keaton

Joan Lunden

Sylvia Mackey – Mrs. 88

David Murdock

Suze Orman

Alan & David Osmond

Holly Robinson Peete

Brooke Shields

Alana Stewart

Jill Eikenberry & Michael Tucker

Meredith Vieira

Reese Witherspoon

Catherine Zeta Jones

 

Celebrity Caregiving Interviews Oct 2013

Celebrate Caregivers During Read Across America Day

As a book lover, I celebrate Read Across America Day (March 2) every year by creating my book list for the coming year and settling on the couch with my first pick.  I love this day because it is a reminder that although as a society we may crave the visual stimulation of TV, the movies or YouTube, nothing beats beautiful words in an engaging book (just read Pride and Prejudice – you will float away to another world on Austen’s delicious turn of phrase).

For those who may not be aware Read Across America Day was created to honor the birthday of Dr. Seuss, whose real name was Theodor Geisel.  And, what is even less well-known is that Dr. Seuss was a caregiver for his first wife.  For several years during perhaps his most productive writing phase when he penned The Cat in the Hat, How the Grinch Stole Christmas and others, Geisel’s first wife, Helen was suffering from several chronic illnesses including battling cancer.

While I know that caregivers have precious little time to read, I thought in honor of Dr. Seuss, our celebrated caregiver, I would put together my CliffsNotes for you on some caregiving books that I think you will enjoy and find valuable.

Caregiving Club’s 1st Annual Reading List

I have to start my list with two celebrities that I have recently interviewed about their caregiving journeys:  Joan Lunden and Michael Tucker (who is co-caregiver to wife Jill Eikenberry’s mother).

Chicken Soup for the Soul – Family Caregivers – this book is part of the popular “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series, and will be available March 13.  The book is co-authored by Joan Lunden, a caregiver for her 93-year-old mother, and Amy Newmark.  It is a compilation of 101 short, inspirational stories from real-life caregivers.  Since each chapter is short you can read them easily or jump to the ones that are most interesting to you.  This is a similar but updated version of the 2004 book of the same title.

 

 

 

Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry have spent the last 39 years as co-stars both on-screen (TV’s “L.A. Law”) and off-screen.  Their most challenging roles happened a few years ago when Jill became caregiver to her mother with Mike by her side to keep her steady and provide the support she needed.  Mike chronicled their caregiving journey in Family Meals – one of the best books I have read on finding the “funny” in some not so funny situations of caring for an in-law with Alzheimer’s.  I highly recommend Family Meals to caregivers because laughter can be great medicine and I literally laughed out loud reading this book.  It is also a great book for spouses of caregivers – Mike’s example of being there for Jill and finding their entire family coming together in caregiving is not only poignant but also inspirational.

Although I have not yet read it, Mike’s first novel, After Annie, deals with the aftermath of a caregiving situation and arrives in bookstores and online March 2.  This novel should prove to be as entertaining and filled with belly-aching humor as his non-fiction work.

This beautiful book is written with the real and raw moments of a wife caring for her husband as he battles Stage IV pancreatic cancer.  Lisa Niemi Swayze lets us see her bravery and her vulnerability by writing in Worth Fighting For about the good and bad moments with actor husband, Patrick.  She does not dive into sentimentality but rather lets us see the reality of losing a beloved spouse.  She epitomizes one of my favorite quotes, “The art of living is the art of letting go gracefully.”

 

 

 

As First Lady of California, Maria Shriver continued her mission to lead a movement to empower women (and she has not stopped since leaving the governor’s mansion).  One of the most comprehensive but readable reports running the gamut of short real-life caregiver stories, research information and policy issues,  The Shriver Report – A Woman’s Nation Takes on Alzheimer’s, is a beacon in a country where we are still in the dark about a disease that will have tremendous impact on our society over the next 20 years.  Ten million American women are impacted by Alzheimer’s disease – either as the person diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or the caregiver for someone with the disease.   This report captures everything you need to know about Alzheimer’s with more tools and resources found at alz.org.

Rodney Peete, husband to actress and autism activist, Holly Robinson Peete whom I interviewed for my book, is best known for his amazing athletic skills on the football field.   His book, Not My Boy!  A Dad’s Journey with Autism, is written from the heart about fathers and sons.  The book chronicles Rodney’s learning to accept his eldest son R.J.’s autism and his eventual solutions to find a way to live in R.J.’s world.  Men represent 34 percent of all caregivers and this book showcases how men can be strong and caring at the same time.

 

 

Other caregiving books worth noting:

  • Passages in Caregiving by Gail Sheehy is a 400-page comprehensive look at the stages of caregiving from this celebrated author
  • Alzheimer’s Prevention Program by Dr. Gary Small highlights ways we can train our brains for better health
  • A Bittersweet Season:  Caring For Our Aging Parents – and Ourselves by Jane Gross, New York Times “New Old Age” blogger writes about caregiving for her mother
  • The Caregiving Wife’s Handbook by Dr. Diane Denholm writes about the impact to marriage when caregiving becomes the new normal
  • A Mother’s Daugther’s Journey by Celia Pomerantz is a joyous journey about how music can transform a mother with Alzheimer’s and give hope to her daughter
  • They’re Your Parents Too! by Francine Russo showcases the stress and strife that can happen when siblings do not agree on how to care for aging parents
  • The Silverado Story by Loren Shook and Stephen Winner  is about the memory care center culture where love conquers fear

Next year I will be able to add my caregiving book to the list – a fascinating look at celebrities who have been caregivers to moms, dads, husbands, wives, siblings and other loved ones with lessons learned and tips from the stars on how to find your “me time.”

Happy reading!