Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker were one of our favorite TV couples in their roles on the Emmy-winning series “L.A. Law.” Since then, both Mike and Jill have thrived as solo artists. Mike is an actor and as an acclaimed author, and Jill is a star on stage and screen with her latest turn in the movie, “ Young Adult" – not to mention her work as a breast-cancer survivor. However, it is when they are working together – especially on their latest project, caring for Jill’s mother with dementia – that they really are at their best. In other words, they are a team.
Sherri Snelling, our caregiving contributor, spoke to them about their caregiving journey and got a look at how into how their special bond of support, respect and caring for each other is a recipe for all couples who face a tough caregiving situation.
For many years, New York City-based Jill and Mike have been vacationing with friends – sometimes for weeks, other times for months – in the lovely Italian countryside of Umbria. This is where the couple recharges with Mike’s sumptuous meals, the chilled wine, the warm people, the beauty of the olive trees and the vineyards.
It was on one such trip about six years ago that Jill and Mike went from the calm of their Italian reverie into the storm of caregiving. Jill’s mom, Lora, whom the family calls Lolo, was 87 and had been living in a Santa Barbara, California assisted living facility for several years with her husband, Ralph. Although Lolo had been hard of hearing for over 40 years and had been experiencing some memory lapses, she was in pretty good health for an octogenarian. But Jill had recently grown worried. Her mom had started having paranoid fantasies, according to Ralph, and he himself was not well Just a few days into their latest Italian sojourn, Jill and Mike got the call that Ralph had died.
“All of a sudden I felt so far away,” says Jill. She had been anxious about leaving her mom before this trip and now the guilt washed over Jill for not being by her mom’s side. Jill’s daily phone calls could no longer bridge the distance. After a few in-person visits and other falls, it became clear to Jill that her mother needed more care. But moving her into the assisted living’s dementia care center seemed wrong. Jill still was not sure Lolo was “there yet.” Her mother would be isolated from neighbors and friends. “It just wasn’t family,” Jill says.
While at first Mike felt some resentment as his Umbrian dreams were put on hold and his concerns mounted about the toll this would take on his wife, he said, “Jill’s focus was on her mom, but my eye was on Jill.”
One of the toughest decisions for caregivers, especially those seven to eight million long-distance caregivers of older parents, is wondering whether it is better to have them live in a facility that can provide the care they need or move them into your home or closer to you so that you can care for them.
“My mom was calling people at all times of the night, wandering off and eventually got to a point where she was physically attacking the nurses caring for her after a bad fall,” says Jill. “One night we went to dinner with our son Max and he said what I had been in denial about, ‘You have to move her to New York City.’ At that moment I looked over at Mike, and he just nodded. I knew this is what we had to do.”
Many caregivers of older parents, even those who are married or who have siblings who can help, often tell me they feel “all alone.” While Jill is an only child, the secret ingredient in her caregiving situation is that she never had that feeling – she has Mike.
“It was a huge moment in that restaurant when I looked at Mike and I just knew no matter what, he was going on this journey with me,” says Jill. “Believe me, the last thing Mike wanted to do was have my mother in our lives every minute. Even though he loved her, Mike felt my personality changed, and not for the better, when I was around my mother.”
What came next is something almost all caregivers face because so few families have that essential caregiving conversation before a crisis hits. In fact, only one-third of all caregivers have had any conversation with their older loved one about long term care. The tasks were Jill and Mike faced were daunting and exhausting: looking for the paperwork to close Lolo’s bank and other accounts, dealing with her expired passport and driver’s license, which were needed to get her on the plane, finding a memory care facility in New York City. And the list goes on. After the move to New York, it eventually became clear that although Lolo needed almost constant care, the facility that Jill and Mike found for her was more like the jail in “The Shawshank Redemption” than Shangri-La.
The solution came when the apartment literally across the hall from Jill and Mike became available and they moved Lolo in. Around the same time Max and their daughter, Alison, from Mike’s first marriage, found themselves helping out with caregiving duties. Alison, who is a chef and personal caterer, cooks most of her grandmother’s meals. Max gives his parents some respite by being a companion (when he is not playing drums in his band) and two professional nurses round out the ongoing family project.
“Going through this experience really brought us together as a family,” says Mike. Besides the familial ties, Mike believes his gifts from caregiving are that he and Jill have become even closer and that he is now more realistic about his future and how he will want his family to care for him. Jill told me that she feels caregiving has taught her to “just let things happen and to not be in denial because it doesn’t serve you.” Valuable lessons all--from a difficult but profound experience.
Sherri Snelling, CEO and founder of the Caregiving Club, is a nationally recognized expert on America’s 65 million family caregivers with special emphasis on how to help caregivers balance “self care” while caring for a loved one. She is also executive producer and host of the caregiving TV program Handle With Care. You can find more information at: www.caregivingclub.com.