Imagine inviting a seasoned journalist into your home to witness some of your most intimate and vulnerable moments—say, resettling your parents into a different home, likely the last one they’ll know. That’s exactly what five families did to help Paula Span illuminate the modern struggles of caring for aging parents in her new book, When the Time Comes.
Span found these families confronting a “steep learning curve,” like so many other boomers, trying to figure out appropriate care for Mom and Dad, how to pay for it, and what changes lie ahead. Facing all of that, they were happy to find someone who would listen.
Span has been there. Over a decade ago, while raising a teenage daughter, the working journalist learned her mother had metastasized uterine cancer. But before she could get treatment, her mother had a massive stroke. Span spent a month caring for her in New Jersey, learning how to crush pills, swab her mouth and turn her so she wouldn’t get bedsores. Her mother died at home in 1998.
Now, Span is trying to master the choices confronting her 86-year-old father, who still lives in his own apartment. Will he eventually be most comfortable in assisted living? When should he move? Could a sudden illness mean a nursing home will be his only choice? Span calls herself a caregiver-in-waiting who is in the “looking into the refrigerator stage—to be sure stuff isn’t rotting.”
Span felt that people would read about the difficulties of becoming your parent’s caretaker if told through stories. Along the way, Span has learned that many boomers don’t know much about caring for their parents and decided to help prepare her peers for what was coming. The result is both an informative guide and a compassionate, inspiring read.
Q. Did your book grow out of your life experience?
A. I am aging myself. You hit somewhere around your late 40s into your 50s and it’s just in the air. Everyone who used to be talking about kids is talking about parents. It’s not SATs anymore, but ADLs [activities of daily living]. I had also done a couple of stories for the Washington Post about retirement. It became clear that the wave is coming and this is the next big life-cycle event for baby boomers. Most of us have raised kids, and just when most of us are ready to retire and take it easy, we’ll be taking care of parents.
Q. You call the book a “support group in print.” What does that mean?
A. There’s not a course in how to take care of one’s parents. You don’t get a diploma. How do you find out the best thing to do for your situation? People learn a lot from each other, and the book is a way of extending that. So the reader sees what some of the issues are for a woman who is trying to help her mother stay in her house. They see how many aides she goes through, how many her mother fires, and then readers are better prepared when they go through this themselves.
Q. You have chapters on each of five types of elder care: home care, shared household situation, assisted living, nursing homes and hospice. Let’s talk about the most important advice from each. What about home care?
A. A big issue with any of these choices is what a professional would call “assessment.” Does this type of living arrangement make sense for your parent? In Shirley Grill’s story in the book, one reason it made sense for her to help her mother, Dora Appel, stay in her home was that Dora had a social network. She had a good friend nearby. She wasn’t isolated. Staying at home is the golden ideal, but isolation is the downside and people decline if they don’t have interaction.