A couple of weeks ago, I had the rare privilege of speaking with Joan Lunden by phone. Joan Lunden! I’ve watched her and admired her for years as she hosted Good Morning America, A&E’s Behind Closed Doors, the Emmy winning special America’s Invisible Children, and a series of other respected news programs and women- and family-oriented series. She’s an entrepreneur, an author, a spokeswoman, a mother of seven, she was voted “Mother of the Year” by the National Mother’s Day Committee. And most recently, she became host of Retirement Living TV’s, Taking Care with Joan Lunden. She’s a media icon. And in my mind, Joan Lunden and I are leagues apart.
But after about 30 seconds of conversation, just after the initial pleasantries and introductions, the perceived gap between Joan and me closed. She and I share a common bond. We are both members of the growing baby boomer “sandwich” generation: mothers of young kids, faced with the daily struggle of managing a career and parenting responsibilities, balanced against the additional challenge of participating in the care of an aging parent. As Joan told me the story about how she found herself taking over the responsibility of caring for her 91 year old mother who lives on the west coast, she bluntly acknowledged that caregiving is the great equalizer. “My story is just like everyone else’s.” For the most part, she’s right.
According to recent statistics provided by the National Alliance for Caregivers, caregivers are predominantly female (66%) and they are 48 years of age, on average. More than three in ten U.S. households (31.2%) report that at least one person has served as an unpaid family caregiver within the last 10 months, leading to an estimate of 36.5 million households with a caregiver present. Caregivers report spending up to 20 hours of care per week, in addition to the time devoted to their work, personal and family responsibilities. That means that not only does caregiving take a huge toll on the caregiver herself, but it exacts a toll on the caregiver’s family, friends and co-workers. The financial, emotional and physical repercussions of what is rapidly becoming our nation’s next big health crisis facing older Americans, is staggering.
Joan’s story is moving: for years, her older brother, himself suffering from advanced Type II Diabetes, had been their aging mother’s primary caregiver. Joan had financed their care from a distance, but her brother managed the day-to-day caretaking responsibilities. When her brother died suddenly of health complications at age 56, Joan rushed in to fill the void. Her mother, Gladyce, was 88 at the time and already suffering from dementia. Joan was left to muscle her way through the monumental task of having to piece together and reorganize her mother’s medical, financial and personal history from a sea of paperwork.
We spoke on the phone about the urgent need for family members to sit down together, no matter how uncomfortable it may seem, to hold a “family meeting” to discuss important issues such as health care routines, plans for residential care, and estate planning matters before it’s too late and dementia sets in. As Joan said, “Asking important questions now and having a plan in place is an act of love. It means having the information necessary to help our loved ones when they need us most.” I agree. And sometimes having a Mediator by your side to assist you and your family negotiate a fair and balanced caregiving plan makes the most sense for everyone.
Tune in to Retirement Living TV’s new show, Taking Care with Joan Lunden, where Joan will be talking with a variety of experts on eldercare and caregiving issues. Check out www.rl.tv/shows/Taking-Care for more details and air times.
Thanks, Joan, for, yet again, being willing to get out in front of this very important social issue!