New book about one family’s eldercare journey

by Jerrold Bartholomew

Mary Ellen Geist, formerly a high-powered New York radio journalist, has written about her experiences as a caregiver for her father. Her book, Measure of the Heart, tells her story of returning home to Michigan to care for her father suffering from Alzheimer’s. MSNBC recently interviewed Mary (video here) and provided a number of excerpts from her new book here.

Perhaps the most stunning aspect of her story is her first-hand account of the breadth of the care-giving generation. Statistics show that the population with Alzheimer’s or some other disabling condition is increasing with the aging of the population. The consequence is that the number of caregivers is also increasing. As Mary Ellen Geist writes:

It is safe to say that each day in the United States dozens of daughters and sons are contemplating transferring jobs or quitting them altogether to respond to the needs of aging parents.

She describes a hidden community of caregivers who know each other at first sight:

We find each other easily in crowds. The daughters — we look each other in the eye, as if to ask, Where’s your husband? Where are your children? Are you single, too? Did you leave your life in a big city to come home to help your parents, too?

We often have unkempt hair, no makeup, and a look of exasperation in our eyes. We are trying to hide the fact that we have just wrestled our parents into tennis shoes after coaxing them to finish their cereal and explaining to them what pills are and why they have to take them, and where we are going today. I see faces that look like my mother’s that seem to say, This shouldn’t be happening to me. I don’t deserve this. This was supposed to be the best time in our lives….

Mary Ellen Geist seems to be at her best when she relates how the time with her father is redeemed. Helping him to through his illness has its own unexpected, bittersweet rewards:

He’s always so glad to hear about the history of our family, and each time it is brand new. After I tell him that each of us went to college and what has transpired since then in our lives, he says, “Aren’t we lucky?”

Indeed, the title of the book is taken from the transformation of her own values and outlook that has taken place since she gave up her city life and moved back home to be with her family:

Some of us realize that we are coming home not only to help do the remembering for our Alzheimer’s-afflicted parents, but also to remember something very important about ourselves. We are coming home to learn how to measure our lives by new standards that we’ve never explored before, to measure our lives in a different way. Instead of defining ourselves by our careers, we’re defining ourselves by the amount of love our hearts can hold.

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