78: Family Meals: The Whole Family Approach

78: Family Meals: The Whole Family Approach

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

Family Meals: The Whole Family Approach

A Note from Joan

I first met Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry when they were starring together on the hit television series L.A. Law. I was always intrigued by this couple, since as actors they worked on so many professional projects together. Therefore it did not surprise me at all when I learned that they had collaborated on a book about a very challenging chapter in their personal life.

Michael and Jill made a decision to leave behind their Hollywood life filled with glitz and paparazzi, and move to the quiet countryside of central Italy to live in their dream home, a 350-year-old stone farmhouse. However not too long after the dream life had begun, it was abruptly interrupted. What happened next led them to reexamine their lives and reinterpret the meaning of family. Michael has written a wonderful book about their family journey called Family Meals: Coming Together to Care for an Aging Parent. I had an opportunity to talk with Jill and Michael about their experience in family caregiving and how it changed their lives.

Joan to Michael: Michael, this idea of living in a farmhouse in the Italian countryside was really a lifelong dream of yours and it took you years to talk Jill into it. Jill finally agreed and you guys went over there and then all of a sudden one day you got a call that changed everything. Tell us about that call.

Jill: The call was from a friend who told me my mom’s husband had died at 91. And I unfortunately had been awaiting this call. In fact it was hard for me to go to Italy that particular summer because I was worried the call was going to come.

Michael: When the phone call came, it was of course, at a chaotic time. We had houseguests, and this and that, but we picked up immediately and went to Santa Barbara to where Jill’s mom, Laura, was living.

Jill: My concern for my mom was I felt that she was starting to lose it mentally. In fact, her husband had been saying for years it was worse than anybody knew. I thought he was kind of looking over her shoulder all the time, making it sound worse than it was. What I found out after he died was he had been covering for her, and in fact it was a lot worse than we thought.

Joan: And I know how hard it can be when you live far away, as you know we have similar situations—since I am in charge of my mom’s health and she lives on the West Coast and is exactly the same age as your mom, Jill. How did you go about deciding how to handle this? These are decisions that would affect how you all live the rest of your lives. Do you bring her to you? Do you have her live with you? These are hard decisions, family decisions. They can’t just be your decision.

Michael: We actually tripped into these decisions. They were sort of forced on us as we were bumbling through this. At that time, there was literally no one to take care of Jill’s mother. They wouldn’t let her back into the assisted living because she needed full-time care.

Jill: And I’m an only child. There was no other place for my mom to go, and I was just beside myself. What do I do? Michael and I had to go back to New York for some work that we were doing. We left my mom in a hospital temporarily while we tried to figure out how we were going to solve this problem. We went out to dinner with our son Max and I was just hysterical, and Max said, “Mom, Grandma has to come here. She has to come to New York.”

Joan: So you settled in New York, which is something you guys are happy with—you’ve lived in New York on and off over the years and you were able to get your mom an apartment across the hall from you.

Michael: Well, eventually we did. Actually at first we moved Laura to a senior living center. And this was not the right place for her. I think it was really the low point for Jill. Jill went to visit her, and she was with her all the time. Her mother would look at her and say, “What have you done to me? You have ruined my life. I have no friends.” This was very hard for both of them.

Joan: Michael, it was hard for you too, I can see.

Michael: Yes, hard for me too… One day I came home and I saw the real estate guy who sold us our apartment outside my door. He was showing the apartment across the hall. I asked if he was selling that apartment and he said, “No, this is a rental.” So we took it, and we moved her in across the hall and we got her aides so she has 24-hour care.

Joan: Though stressful, you tell the story in your book about how through all of this, you reestablished a wonderful closeness with your children and brought them into the family caregiving process.

Jill: I don’t think if you asked me five years ago whether this could ever happen to our family that I would believe it.

Michael: Allison, our daughter, prepares all of Laura’s meals in our kitchen, which has made me so much closer to my daughter than I’ve ever been.

Joan: Jill, how has this family caregiving solution been for you?

Jill: At first it was a 24-hour job for me when my mom came to New York. I could think of nothing else. But gradually what I discovered was that the aides, these extraordinary women from the Caribbean, knew my mother better than I did. They knew what to do for her since they specialized in dementia. They accepted her for who she was now. I was still trying to make her who she was then. And it was always so hard for me, because I would see a little spark of my mother and I would suddenly rush in and be disappointed over and over.

Joan: So what advice would you give to other families who are dealing with parents or other family members who just can’t take care of themselves?

Michael: My advice, and it’s one of the stronger themes in the book, is that while you have to take care of your parent, you also have to live your life. Don’t give up one for the other. This was our struggle.

Jill: My advice is to try to figure out a way to let go of your expectations, of what was, and embrace what is. There are some wonderful things about my mother having been able to lift off the burden of that personality she was trying to carry around for so long. And now there’s contentment on her face that I know comes from having let go. And so if she can let it go, I better be able to do that too.

Joan: And the book, Family Meals: Coming Together to Care for an Aging Parent, is filled with more heartwarming advice like this. Thank you for sharing your story.

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