By Lisa Chamoff
Several years ago, former “Good Morning America” co-host and Greenwich resident Joan Lunden was settling in to her second round of motherhood when she was thrust, unprepared, into a third caregiving role.
Lunden, now 61, who already had three young-adult daughters, was raising two sets of infant twins with her second husband. For years, Lunden had been providing long-distance help to her mother and brother, who lived together in northern California, where Lunden grew up. Then Lunden’s brother, who suffered from type II diabetes, died, leaving Lunden to find the best living situation for her then-88-year-old mother, who was showing signs of dementia.
Most people mark Mother’s Day by showering their moms with cards, flowers and other gifts, but a growing number of adult children are giving back by caring for their aging parents.
“I don’t think a lot of us give it a lot of thought,” Lunden said during a recent phone interview. “We just don’t talk about it because — let’s be serious — we don’t want to think about it.”
The biggest challenge for Lunden, who took many red-eye flights to visit her mother, Gladyce, was navigating the world of senior housing. Lunden said at first she moved her mother into a beautiful senior community that offered a private apartment where she could invite company, and a dining room downstairs where she could socialize with the other residents. It turned out to be the wrong fit for the woman Gladyce had become.
“I think we just imagine our parents as they were 10 years ago,” Lunden said. “When they haven’t been living right by you, you haven’t been observing their day-to-day frailties. My mom wasn’t remembering people and she would go downstairs and people would say, ’Hi, Gladyce,’ and she wouldn’t remember their names.”
Gladyce had also started “sundowning,” suffering from the late-day confusion and agitation often seen in people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, so it wasn’t good for her to be living alone.
“At 88, it doesn’t matter how pretty it is, to have that door close behind you is incredibly frightening,” Lunden said.
Lunden said she thought about how easy it would be if she could move her mother to Connecticut. But Lunden says her mom is “a real California sunshine gal,” with friends nearby who still come to visit her. Lunden was also wary of disrupting her mother’s life and routine.
After a move to another facility, and a series of falls, Gladyce was in the hospital when a social worker there put Lunden in touch with A Place For Mom, a free information service that helps families find the appropriate senior care and housing for their loved ones.
Gladyce now lives in a small ranch-style home with five other people in their 90s, with staff that take care of them around the clock. An alarm goes off as soon as Gladyce puts her feet on the floor after getting out of bed in the morning.
“It’s not like one of the big, beautiful senior centers, but it’s perfect for my mom,” Lunden said.
Lunden now serves as a spokeswoman for A Place For Mom. She also co-authored “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers,” published in March, and hosted the series “Taking Care with Joan Lunden” on the RLTV network. The series explores the challenges of caregiving.
“I’m kind of the typical caregiver,” Lunden said.
Many women are having children later in life, and are juggling raising young kids and careers while keeping an eye on parents with health problems, becoming part of the so-called Sandwich Generation.
Lunden’s experience has given her insight into being a long-distance caregiver, which comes with special challenges. She recommends forming a rapport with the people doing the daily work of paid caregiving.
“One of the biggest pieces of advice I would give people is not to just drop them off,” Lunden said. “The more information they have about my mom, the more they can engage her in conversation.”
Lunden also learned how to talk to her mother in a different way once it was clear she had dementia. Instead of talking about her life today, Lunden started making photo books, and sitting down with her mom to look at all the old pictures.
Like Lunden, it may take a few tries before families find the right fit.
Holly Walters, an elder-care adviser for A Place for Mom who is based in Stamford and whose mother suffered from Alzheimer’s, said there are many options in this area, including apartment complexes, independent living communities, skilled nursing communities and home health aide programs.
Walters said she talks to family members to assess their loved one’s medical and supervisory requirements and social needs. There is also the emotional aspect of the situation, but Walters said the more information provided, the easier the situation becomes.
“That way, when they speak with their loved ones, there’s a lot more understanding,” Walters said. “It’s really about choices and feeling confident that they’re safe and in the right place for them.”
Lunden has met many people in her situation, as well as others who don’t have the luxury of hiring a caregiver, and have to do the tough work themselves.
“This is the next health crisis in this country,” Lunden said. “If you look at the sheer statistics right now in this population, they say baby boomers will spend more time taking care of their parents than taking care of their own children.”
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