Though finished with her two-decade stint hosting “Good Morning America,” Joan Lunden is hardly what one would call retired. During the past eight to 10 years, she has concentrated on her passion, which is health, and focused on helping families and women with shows like “Health Corner” and “Taking Care with Joan Lunden,” a series on caregiving. Lunden was a long-distance caregiver for her mother until her mother’s death at age 93 last year.
Lunden also is a spokesperson for A Place for Mom, a senior living referral service, and founded Camp Reveille, a women’s wellness retreat. She is involved in countless health awareness campaigns, and gives about 35 speeches annually. Aging Today recently spoke with Lunden about her caregiving challenges and the inspiration behind A Place for Mom.
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Aging Today: How do you view your role as a public figure and member of the sandwich generation? Do you feel a personal responsibility to be a spokesperson for the challenges facing this cohort?
Joan Lunden: Absolutely. It started when I was little girl. My father was a cancer surgeon and I wanted to grow up to be doctor just like him. He was killed in a private plane accident when I was about 14. That instilled in me a desire to fulfill his legacy, but when I went to work in a hospital, I found out that stitches and scalpels would not be in my future!
There are other ways to help people to live healthier lives, and I found that [opportunity] in “Good Morning America.” I became a trusted, reliable person who could make a difference. I’ve been blessed to have this platform [from which] I can go out and impact people’s lives.
AT: What most surprised you about the caregiving journey you embarked upon with your mother?
JL: I was so unprepared, and had no plan in place. I’m sorry to say that I think [that’s] typical. It’s just part of human nature—we want to think of ourselves as kids and our parents as in charge, impenetrable decision makers. But there comes a time when they’re not. … The day you have to become a parent to your parent is unnatural, and uncomfortable. You don’t want to burden your parents by asking what their plans are for later life, you don’t want to be presumptive or make them feel awkward, but if we don’t ask, [their care] might financially devastate our own family. And our parents are reluctant to answer, which is also part of human nature because it represents their mortality.
AT: What’s the most important conversation to have with your parents while they are still healthy?
JL: There’s that 40 to 70 rule, where by the time you’re 40 and they’re 70, you’d better have had that discussion. I had access to every expert, had even done stories about it, but I hadn’t yet put a plan in place.
I was in my mom’s house after my brother died, looking around thinking, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of stuff here.’ Then I thought, ‘Joan, you’ve been out here a lot of times to visit, didn’t you notice there were all these stacks of mail?’ You need to be a food spy on your parents: are foods expired, moldy—are cans outdated? Are they grocery shopping? Do they still have the will to cook for themselves, the will to make decisions?
The day they land in the hospital and can’t speak for themselves, you don’t want to be the one making that [life or death] decision. Have a written living will and keep a copy, have a HIPPA release on your parents, on your spouse and on you—these all should be scanned and in your phone. You need a durable power of attorney for legal and medical.
AT: How can you begin to have that conversation?
JL: You can say, ‘It looks like you need help, I’ll clean house, he’ll do the mail and she’ll do the garage …’ A successful approach has everything to do with your attitude. Why not take a video camera and sit your parents down, maybe with other relatives, and have an interview with them prepared?
Ask ‘What was life like when you were young, when you met dad?’ If you keep up the questioning, you’ll get them to progress on through their lives and you can say, ‘You’re now 79, did you ever think you would live that long?’ then you work your way to, ‘How do you envision your next 10, 20 years and how can I help make that happen for you?’
AT: As you look back upon the caregiving journey with your mom, do you have any regrets?
JL: I have a couple: First, I would have moved mom to an active senior care facility when she was 70ish. She could have played cards, gone to the theater with friends, had conversations that stimulated her mind—her later years would have been different. But my brother was part of [her living] situation, and she didn’t want to leave him.
Second, I didn’t have a plan. If I had just gotten my ducks in row and talked about it, it wouldn’t have had to have been this jarring, unusual event. It doesn’t have to be so hard. I’m determined to ensure that this doesn’t happen to others.
AT: If you found it difficult to juggle a career and caregiving, how might you help those in the same situation, but who don’t have abundant resources for needed help and support?
JL: Of the 220 women who show up for my wellness retreat, about 80 percent are caregivers, and they are all so overwhelmed. They always say they are the only one in the family that does [caregiving]. We inquire, have you asked your siblings, or parents’ friends who are still viable? Usually they haven’t. If we open up and ask questions, ask for assistance, you allow people who love you the most to help you. People don’t [usually] come over and say, ‘Let me do that.’
AT: Can you speak to any caregiving challenges that people with siblings might encounter?
JL: In my case, my sibling had Type 2 diabetes, and also was in need of care, so I took care of my brother for decades. He lived with my mom, and the two of them together gave them some comfort. I hear stories from women whose brothers and sisters don’t lift a finger, and they come [to Camp Reveille] just exhausted. I never understood, until I started running a women’s wellness retreat, that so much connection and emotional support occurs when you get a large group of women together. They give each other such warmth and compassion and help—I don’t know how to explain it, it’s so powerful.
AT: How did your relationship with A Place for Mom come about?
JL: When my brother died and I went [to Sacramento] to find a place for my mom, I got in the car and started driving around; I didn’t know there were resources like A Place for Mom that would provide that service for you. They do the hand-holding. That’s why I do this now.
Editor’s Note: This article appears in the November/December 2014 issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store or Join ASA.
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