How Joan Lunden has inspired me to get serious about elder advocacy

joan-hc

This piece originally was written April 21, 2015, for Healthline Contributors. That site is going dark, so this piece is reprinted with permission here (many thanks to Healthline for the heads up and the permission to reprint). My father’s assisted living facility had just changed hands when this was written, and things took a severe nosedive shortly thereafter. I urge everyone to attempt to care for their loved one at home if possible. I realize that sometimes it is not.

By David Heitz

I met Joan Lunden face to face Friday!

I attended a meet-and-greet fundraiser after she spoke to an enthusiastic crowd at the RiverCenter/Adler Theatre in Davenport, Iowa. Both events raised money for Gilda’s Club of the Quad-Cities – the community in which I live – and were sponsored by Genesis Cancer Institute.

When I heard that Joan was coming to my community, I knew I just had to meet her. A publicist for Joan reached out to me last September and offered me an interview with the legendary television newswoman. Just days before I interviewed Joan for this piece on her work advocating for quality senior living, she revealed on “Today” and her alma mater “Good Morning America” that she has breast cancer.

I thought, “Why would someone as famous as Joan Lunden work so hard during a time like this?”

The explanation she gave Friday keeps playing over and over in my head. “I realized, ‘Joan, you have this amazing platform after being in people’s living rooms and bedrooms for so many years,’” she told one news reporter. “You can either step up, or not.”

so understand what she means. While I can’t relate to the fear or despair that can come with a cancer diagnosis (although I did lose my mom to breast cancer 20 years ago last month), I can relate to the fear and self-pity associated with having a parent lose their mind before your very eyes.

The issue I spoke with Joan about for my story last October – preparing for the possibility that a loved one may have to move into an assisted living facility – could not be more personal to me. Like so many Americans my age, Dad’s dementia came on sort of suddenly in terms of when it got to be more than I could handle. I had checked in on him for many years, and lived with him for one year. When it became too much and I dialed 911 two years ago, the drama and anguish that followed for several months afterward became more than I could bear. While my dad ended up getting outstanding care, and continues to get it today, it has not been without struggle – lots and lots and lots of struggle on my behalf as his advocate.

At one point, managing the situation became more than I could handle. I cried out on social media in a drunken rage about some of the horrible things that were going on as it related to Dad’s dementia, my concerns about the quality of the care he was getting, and even some of my personal relationships with family and friends.

The day after the explosive, blunt posts, I woke up. Like Joan, I thought to myself: “Everyone is watching you. You’re an intelligent person. Are you going to feel sorry for yourself?”

And, in my case, drink myself to death? Or was I going to get sober, step up to the plate and be my dad’s advocate?

I chose the latter. The day after Memorial Day marks one year since I put down the bottle for good. And while I may not be famous like Joan, I do think it’s fair to say I have a way of telling interesting stories, as well as access to some great platforms like Healthline.

So while talking about Dad’s dementia is tough, I’m going to do what Joan has done. I plan to pour even more of myself into issues related to elder advocacy and helping others prepare for Mom and Dad possibly needing to go into “the place” someday. In addition to Healthline, I hope to soon share my experiences about being Dad’s caregiver with even more sites and publications.

How do you know Mom has dementia and isn’t just forgetful? How can you be sure Dad is getting good care at the memory-care facility? What are some warning signs that Mom isn’t in the right place for her? What do you need to know about signing contracts when choosing a place for your parent? What should you think about when choosing a power of attorney? When a parent with dementia goes on hospice, what does that mean, exactly?

Believe me, it’s not the same as putting a parent dying of cancer on hospice, heaven forbid. There are lots of important differences. And a few shocking things everyone needs to be aware of.

I have all of that information, and it’s time I start sharing it. On top of my personal experience (and battle scars), I’ve become a bit of an expert on the topic of elder care myself after talking to so many prominent national authorities like Joan. I’ve spoken with U.S. Assistant Secretary of Aging Kathy Greenlee about elder abuse being a growing national problem. I’ve interviewed former ’70s pinup model and television bombshell Loni Anderson about caring for her parents with COPD. I’ve reported on how corporate America needs to acknowledge that people caring for elderly parents are the new “working moms.” I’ve told the story of how caregivers save their loved ones and government-funded health programs billions of dollars every year. And just last month I reported that home-care workers for the elderly are living in poverty.

As a journalist, I’ve always thought, How can you expect others to share if you don’t share yourself?

“When you’ve got such a platform, you can either step up to the plate, or not.”

Joan said it again at the meet-and-greet.

I’m stepping up, Joan. Thanks for being an inspiration.

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