Joan Lunden Takes on Yet Another Role: Family Caregiver

Millions of Americans spent 17 years saying good morning to Joan Lunden. Since vacating her anchor chair at ABC, Lunden has single-handedly built a successful business empire, which allows her to continue to grace the airwaves and connect with her fans. Behind closed doors, Lunden is tackling another issue that not only weighs heavily on her heart but also forced her into uncharted territory: Taking care of her 93-year-old mother who has dementia. An edited version of our phone interview with her follows.

by Ilyssa Panitz • Celebrity Reporter
joan lunden and her mom image
Joan Lunden, left, with her mom Gladyce Blunden.
Photograph: Ida Astute

More: You are launching your Twiztt cookware line, you co-wrote a new Chicken Soup for the Soul book and are the face of A Place for Mom, an information service for senior living locations. Do you ever slow down?
Joan Lunden: I am so fortunate that after having a great career in TV, I get to do so many fun projects. Although I didn’t turn out to be a doctor like my dad, I, too, want to make a difference in people’s lives by helping them stay healthy and take care of each other. Every project I get involved with sends that message.

More: You give new meaning to the phrase, “age is a state of mind.”
JL: It is not about the first 40 years. It is about figuring out how to write new chapters and reinvent yourself as you age. It’s constantly looking for ways to make your life more challenging, intriguing and fun. 

More: You got involved with A Place for Mom for a very personal reason?
JL: Yes. This is something I have been dealing with for a long time. When my mom, Gladyce, was 88 years old, I took over complete day-in and day-out care of her. My mother has dementia.

More: How awful for you, given the fact you lost your father and your brother, too.
JL: My brother had type 2 diabetes and had such a big struggle with his disease. I was the one taking care of him and my mom by keeping them in a condo together and making sure people came in to help them with their daily care. When my brother died six years ago from his health battle, my mom became my complete responsibility. It's been a huge part of my life.

More: How is your mom today?
JL: It was so difficult for my mom to deal with my brother's death, and I think she still hasn’t dealt with it. She talks about him as if he is still alive. That said, I am happy to say my mom is 93 years old and doing well. Although she has her good days and her bad days, she is now in a facility that I found through A Place for Mom. I moved her four times before I found the right fit, thanks to an adviser who helped me ensure her safety. I also do all of my mom’s shopping, and I make sure she has clean clothes.

More: What is A Place for Mom?
JL: It is a Web-based referral service that’s filled with useful information for helping as well as educating seniors and their families about finding the best senior living options for their needs.

More: When did you know something was wrong with your mom?
JL: My mom started getting forgetful. Plus, having a crisis in life can also increase one’s dementia. In my mom’s case, her dementia was increased exponentially when my brother died. She had lived with him for decades, and when he passed, it rocked her world. He was only 57 years old. The death of a child before a parent is a tough one for any parent to deal with. While she was dealing with that trauma, I came along and said, “Hey, you have to move out of your house, too.”

More: How did you prepare for that conversation?
JL: That was the hardest conversation I ever had to have. I am a journalist. I have done this story before. How could I not be prepared? You’re not prepared for something like this when it is your own. It is so difficult and something none of us wants to face.

More: You also lost your father when you were 14 years old after he was killed in a plane crash. When you got the news about your mom's dementia, were you angry?
JL: The only thing I was angry about was that I hadn’t prepared myself. I was living back east when this was all happening, and they were out west. When I got there, I took a deep breath and said, “OK, let’s focus on what we need to get done.” When it came time to find a place for her to live, I was clueless. I wasn’t in tune with her physical and medical needs at the time.

More: How did you tell your husband you were assuming this massive responsibility?
JL: Interestingly, my husband knew I took care of my mom and my brother. He also takes care of his parents, so we were both in the same situation. 

More: How are you doing since your brother Jeff’s passing?
JL: He had been so ill. He got this disease in his late twenties, and it ravaged his body. He had many surgeries on his hands, he almost lost a foot and his sight, and it is also a disease that ravages the blood vessels in your body. By the time he was in his 30s, he had difficulty standing, he got migraine headaches and found it tough to hold down a job. He had all of the complications of type 2 diabetes that you could have. His life was completely dictated by the disease. He had such a tough life.

More: Were you and your brother close?
JL: My mom miscarried four times. When she was 30 years old, she and my dad decided they would adopt. They took my brother home when he was three days old. Then, unbeknownst to her, she got pregnant with me. My brother and I were seven months and 29 days apart. Because we were so close in age, we were raised as twins and did everything together.

More: What have you learned from taking this journey with your mom?
JL: Don’t just find your loved one a place and put them there. Go and visit as many facilities as possible. The more places you visit, the more you will get to know the staff, and the more they will get to know your loved one. Educate the staff on your loved one so they feel more connected and will want to give more attention to him or her. Another thing I discovered: The actual move is very difficult on them. They wake up one day and think, "Where am I?" To make my mom’s transition easier, we went around her room and took pictures of how it looked so we could re-create that exact room in her new home.

More: Are you at peace with this decision?
JL: It is the most unnatural passage you could go through. To me, the hardest life passage was this one because it feels so awkward. You spend your entire life as the child, and now you need to act as the parent and talk to them as if they were the child. I discovered having professional guidance can really help with the transition. You should also get an elder lawyer to help get all of your paperwork in order.

More: How did life change after your dad passed?
JL: My dad’s death when I was only 14 was incredibly life changing for all of us. My mom immediately became the head of the household and had to go back into the workforce. She needed to completely transform who she was. Watching that completely defined me in so many ways.

More: Speaking of moms, not only are you the mother of seven children, but you also blended two families.
JL: I am lucky in that sense. Not only does my husband have a great relationship with my older girls from my first marriage, but my daughters also don’t feel like this is Mommy’s other family. They are so much a part of our lives and have a great relationship with the four younger ones.

More: Do your younger kids understand that another woman gave birth to them?
JL: We recently said we need to sit down with the kids and make sure they really understand what everything means. Turns out they knew that Deborah Bolig, who is still in our lives, carried them, probably because we have been talking about it all along. It was the best experience, and Deborah was so wonderful, keeping us updated on the pregnancies. We still see Deborah once a year and send pictures of the children.

More: How are you different these days?
JL: I always wanted to be in control of my economic security and future. My dad's passing also defined me because I really wanted to carry out his legacy. My dad was a community leader, had been doing a lot of cancer research and represented the United States at major cancer conventions. He was doing surgeries that no one was doing at the time.

More: You must miss him.
JL: I feel so fulfilled because I really feel like I am carrying on his legacy. There are so many ways you can help people, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be with surgery. I feel that my profession as a journalist who would wake people up every day by telling them what is going on in the world and talk to experts about how to eat healthy was like taking care of them. Do you know I remember the day I turned 40 years old? It hit me because I immediately thought, Wow, my mom was 40 years old when my dad died. All of a sudden you look at things in a completely different way and appreciate your mom on a whole new level.  

Next: The New Face of the New York Times

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First Published Thu, 2012-03-08 00:57

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