Author encountered unexpected role: as caregiver to mother

Jane Gross, guest speaker at ElderLink event, 1-4 p.m. Oct. 14 at the JCC Staenberg Family  Complex. 

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

It was neither easy nor expected but for Jane Gross, becoming a caregiver to her mother was both a challenge and a reward.

“We were never close and I certainly wasn’t one of these daughters who went running into taking on this responsibility enthusiastically,” said Gross, a former New York Times columnist. “She was difficult. I was difficult.” 

But in the end, she developed a stronger relationship with her mother, a process she chronicled in her book “A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents – And Ourselves.”

 “It certainly wasn’t what I expected to happen,” she said.

ADVERTISEMENT

St. Louisans will have the chance to hear from Gross during the author’s upcoming visit to the area. As creator of The New Old Age blog, Gross will keynote a larger ElderLink St. Louis conference Sunday afternoon at the JCC. 

Created three years ago, ElderLink, which is funded by a variety of groups including the Jewish Federation’s Lubin-Green Foundation, aims to bring about easier access to resources and services for senior adults and is administered by Jewish Family & Children’s Service. 

This week’s three-hour conference, made possible through a grant by the JCA Charitable Foundation, will include a panel of experts on aging and be moderated by Fox 2 News’ Paul Schankman.

Marcia Mermelstein, a senior adult information and referral specialist with the organization, said although people may find it uncomfortable, they need to focus on the topic.

“We tend to not want to think about our parents getting old and we don’t make ourselves familiar with all these resources,” Mermelstein said. “The elder care system is extremely complex and while there are lots of good resources out there, most people really don’t have an idea where to begin so we chase our tails running around trying to get the help our parents need.”

She said she was deeply impressed by Gross’s work.

“I kept thinking as I was reading it, I wish I’d had this book in my hands three or four years ago because it is full of very helpful information,” she said.

Gross said that she doesn’t have a set agenda for her talk but rather tries to get a feel for the audience’s concerns. In the end, the needs of a particular caregiver can vary widely based on their situation.

 “There is no one rule other than the fact that there is no one rule,” she said. “It helps a great deal if you’ve thought about it and talked about it as a family before you are confronted with the medical crisis. That very rarely happens.”

She said that she was struck by how expensive the process was. It can easily consume hundreds of thousands of dollars until Medicaid kicks in once a person has run out of cash. Many are under the impression that Medicare deals with such issues instead.

“I’ve encountered very few people who actually understand that Medicare, which presumably is health insurance for old people, really only covers what’s known professionally as acute care, things that doctors do such as surgical procedures, tests, medicine,” she said. “The vast majority of what old people need, particularly very old people, is not that kind of care. It’s to move into a senior facility or to have help at home or to have someone drive them around.”

She said the entire process can be overwhelming and eat away an entire life savings. “You’ll spend a lot of money but you won’t realize you are going to and you won’t necessarily know where it is going to come from,” she said.

Another problem faced by caregivers is denial.

“The other thing I hear all the time is that that won’t happen to my parent and that won’t happen to me because we’ll be healthy and playing tennis at 89 and then we’ll die in our sleep of a heart attack or something,” she said. “Something convenient and less tortuous for everyone involved.”

But people are living longer than ever before. Gross said that extended life can also mean a greater need for extended care since illnesses that once killed commonly in late middle age are becoming treatable.

“Increasingly, medicine can take care of all of that stuff but medicine can’t, after a certain point, take care of the body simply breaking down physically or cognitively,” she said. “That happens to pretty much everybody who lives beyond a certain age.”

She cautions against wishful thinking and notes that planning ahead and understanding the realities upfront can make the process easier. 

Still, it’s difficult for anyone to balance work and family while also helping an aging parent or relative do things they used to be able to handle for themselves.

“I don’t think anybody really understands what it feels like to be doing it and attempting to do the rest of your life at the same time,” she said.

For more information on the ElderLink event, which will run from 1-4 p.m. Oct. 14 at the JCC Staenberg Family Complex, call 314-812-9300 or email [email protected]