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Elder Care Advocate Takes on Yet Another Battle

Jacqueline Marcell's fearless struggle.

The best teachers continue to teach long after they’ve left the classroom. Jacqueline Marcell is one of them.

Ten years ago Marcell, now 57, found herself in the midst of her parent’s unforeseen health crisis. When both parents were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the former college instructor and television executive set about unearthing answers so she could wrestle the disease and the health care system into manageability. Marcell quickly molded her newfound knowledge into Elder Rage or Take My Father ... Please!: How to Survive Caring for Aging Parents, a self-published how-to book that positioned her as an elder care advocate and much-in-demand speaker.

In 2004, soon after burying her parents within nine months of each other, Marcell herself was diagnosed with breast cancer. It became a prolonged ordeal that has involved a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation, but, characteristically, Marcell aggressively sought information. Now the spirited, single Irvine, Calif., resident includes breast cancer—and self care—awareness in her elder care speeches.

What means the most to Marcell these days are the e-mails and letters saying her Alzheimer’s book spawned earlier and better care for a parent or spouse, or that her breast-cancer information prompted someone to discover the disease in its early stages.

“You just can’t buy that feeling,” she says.

There’s no blueprint for vanquishing midlife challenges, and some people, once they’re victorious, aren’t interested in sharing. But Marcell felt compelled.

“It started with being infuriated,” she says. “I spent a year trying to get answers so I could properly care for my parents.” Once she had unlocked hundreds of complicated pathways through the health care system, she “needed to help others through shortcuts to quicker understanding and strategies.”

It helps that Marcell is apparently fearless.

When she began putting together Elder Rage, Marcell knew nothing about writing or publishing books. When she began getting speaking invitations, she knew nothing about public speaking. And when she did a radio appearance, it was an initiation that quickly led to her own Internet radio show, Coping With Caregiving.

When it comes to trying new things, she says, “There’s a passion that comes from something you’ve lived through that will override all reticence. I knew I had to make a difference.”

When cancer hit—having started during the stressful years of full-time parental caregiving—Marcell realized she could “spiral down that tunnel” where all is dark.

“I thought I understood sickness, mortality, dying because of my parents,” she says. “I didn’t ‘get it’ until it was me.”

Instead, she forged a positive route, regularly recording “gratitudes”—the things that make life special to her. “I appreciate the preciousness of time,” she says.

Marcell feels no need to write a book about cancer. But she does keep up with all the latest findings, invites experts to discuss cancer on her radio show, and regularly shares her personal experience.

Now, after a decade of rough times, Marcell is sure 2008 is her turnaround year.

Doctors say her tests that monitor for cancer are looking good. Marcell has no real concern about developing early Alzheimer’s. “My parents were not young when they developed it,” she explains. But she does take precautions: “I keep up with the latest research ... I take vitamin E every day, do crosswords and am always learning something new to stimulate my brain.”

If Marcell does develop Alzheimer’s in 20 years, she says, “I’m confident there will be better ways to deal with it.”

For now, Marcell is ready—after a cascade of impediments—to launch into an era of normalcy, including resuming dating.

“I’m done with the trauma and drama,” she says with a laugh.

Sharon L. Peters is a writer in Colorado Springs, Colo.

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