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


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.

Research explains how my writing, not lots and lots of meetings, got me sober



Originally published Aug. 19, 2015, on Healthline Contributors, which no longer is live. Reprinted with permission. This piece had almost 8,000 page views on Contributors as of Dec. 3, 2016.

By David Heitz

My sobriety has left a lot of people speechless.

After all, I took my first sip in 1984 at the age of 14 and, off and on, drank heavily for 30 years. When I wasn’t drinking, I was in the throes of a crystal meth addiction. When I escaped the wickedness of meth, I ran right back into the arms of booze. For many years, cocaine was in the mix, too.

So how have I gotten sober? And has it really been as easy as I say it has been?

It has, and for me the key to getting sober hasn’t so much been a higher power, but for the first time in many years, having meaning in my life.

I got wind this week of some groundbreaking research published last year in the Journal of Social Service Research titled “Attachment Style, Spirituality, and Depressive Symptoms Among Individuals in Substance Abuse Treatment.” Naelys Diaz, associate professor in the School of Social Work at Florida Atlantic University, and colleagues studied a group of 77 people receiving substance abuse treatment at Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches in Florida.

Read more: When is it time to thrown in the towel on AA, and what other options are there?

They found that those who reported having meaning in their life were less likely to suffer from depressive symptoms than those who reported a perceived “closeness to God,” otherwise known as “a higher power” in 12-step programs.

People who report secure attachment styles – people with positive views of both themselves and others – long have been known to be at a lesser risk of depression. They are more likely to form trusting, intimate, emotional bonds with other people.

The Realities of Insecure Attachment Styles

But it is people with insecure attachment styles who are more at risk for substance abuse, and the depression that leads to relapse when trying to get sober. People with insecure attachment styles fall into three subcategories:

  1. Preoccupied. These people have a negative view of self, but a positive view of others. Their insecurity stems from feelings of low self-worth, anxiety and fear of abandonment by others.

I’ve been in this terrible place. It’s not a good place to be if you want to make good choices about who you hang out with, as opposed to hanging out with just anyone who will pay you some attention, even if they don’t have your best interests in mind.

  1. Dismissive. People with dismissive styles are likely to have a positive view of self, but still often have a negative view of others. I admittedly am trying to crawl out of this category and develop a secure attachment style.
  1. Fearful. People with fearful styles have negative views of both themselves and others. Their lack of personal worth coupled with expectations of abandonment interfere with the possibility of developing healthy intimate relationships.

Why Meaningful Lives Are Critical in Sobriety

So, if meaning in life is more important to the success of people battling substance abuse and depression (which often leads to relapse), why all the focus on God and a higher power?

“People need to find security in terms of their relationships,” Diaz said. “If they don’t find it with their relatives, they’re going to look for that sense of safety and community elsewhere. For people with an insecure attachment style, a relationship to God is the next best thing.”

The problem is that if the perceived relationship with God or a “higher power” isn’t enough to keep them wholly satisfied, it won’t ward off the depression that likely will lead to relapse.

I have more meaning in life than I’ve ever had. That’s because I feel like my health reporting truly makes a difference and helps people. I don’t have HIV or hepatitis C, for example, but I know that when I write about these topics it helps people not only who have these diseases, but who may be at risk for them. To me, that provides much more satisfaction than I ever got writing or editing stories in the newspaper about road work. I can say the same about how I feel regarding my reporting on elder care and caregiving.

In 12-step groups, they describe this sort of satisfaction from helping others as “service work.” It may come in the form of volunteering at a nursing home or a school, for example.

Second, the writing process for me is a form of creative expression, and those creative feelings just make me feel generally good – a fix, if you will. Others enjoy such creative benefits by cooking, gardening or building things, for example.

Read more: Renowned addiction writer says shaming doesn’t work, nor do 12-step programs for opioid addicts 

Third, living by myself, in a quiet neighborhood, and even working in solitude, gives me a feeling of peace and calmness that I never before have had the opportunity to experience.

 A Three-Pronged Path to Staying Sober

All of these things have helped create a sober David, and that’s no surprise, Diaz said.

Soon, Diaz will have a paper published in the Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Social Work along with colleague Gail Horton outlining how service to others, moments of solitude and creative activities can help people find meaning in life and get them on the path to recovery, she said. They call this model the “three-leg stool.”

“AA works for many, many people,” Diaz stressed. “But some people have no relationship with God, or their relationship with God is hurting them at this point in time and needs to be addressed in treatment. In those cases (the relationship with God) can be more connected to the symptoms.”

Diaz said treatment centers need to work harder to foster creative activities (painting, drawing, writing, dancing, gardening), solitude (praying, meditating, walking a labyrinth) and service to others.

Is it really a surprise that people who have meaning in their life are less likely to be engulfed by drugs and alcohol?

For many people, sobriety needs to be about more than meetings.