So, Who knew Gail Sheehy was from Mamaroneck? Not us!
In the gallery space at ArtsWestchester in White Plains, last week, Sheehy came home to speak about her newest book– her 15th—Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence.
The event was co-sponsored by ArtsWestchester and The Club at Briarcliff Manor, a luxury senior community now in development.
Born in Mamaroneck in 1937, Sheehy is still hard at work as a journalist and author. It was clear that the familiar “P” word on the front of so many of her books is still up to the task: helping us examine a life cycle topic, in this case caregiving, in a new and better informed way.
She told the largely senior crowd about the caregiving journey that she and her journalist husband, Clay Felker (founder of New York magazine, among other achievements), shared as he battled four bouts with cancer over 17 years until his death in 2008. In sharing her very personal account, Gail summed up the caregiver’s journey after getting the initial bad news: shock and mobilization, preparing for the new normal, playing God (or not), and, most important here, setting up your own caring circle.
Sheehy offered the crowd several key points of advice—our caregiver’s takeaway for the evening:
– Start the conversation. Even though none of us think we’re going to get sick and/or old, talk now with your families about what you and they would want to have happen when you get sick and/or old (and you will.) She relayed how Maria Schriver’s family had to re-group after the death of her mother, Eunice, when Maria and her brothers quickly realized they were not prepared to care for Maria’s father, Sargent Shriver, newly alone and suffering from dementia.
– Don’t do it alone. Create the best care circle possible for you and your loved one’s needs. This involves an ongoing collaboration among the patient, caregiver, doctor, social worker and others. Make sure everyone on the team is working together in the patient’s best interest, which leads to her next point–
– Ask the patient what they really want. Even during treatment, sick people are still allowed to have goals and priorities. The doctor who dared to ask Gail’s husband what he wanted found that the lifelong journalist in Clay wanted to “just keep going out to see what’s going on.” And so they did, even with the wheel chair and feeding tube. All the way to Paris, and to jazz clubs in New York. And like many patients, he preferred living at home to anywhere else for the long goodbye at the end.
– Caregiving can serve as a “reset button” for relationships, in a positive way. After overcoming cancer in the ‘90’s, Clay was able to move to California and teach journalism at Berkley for six deeply fulfilling years. And Gail described how working through the obstacles of cancer changed their relationship.
– Caregiving is the “legacy passage”. Gail said there are 50 million of us right now taking care of someone who used to be independent. Nearly all of us will be called upon at some point in life to be part of a caregiving relationship, just as just as parents before us did and children after us will as well.
Through her stories and strategies Sheehy makes her case for the universal nature of the caregiver’s journey. She also tells caregivers they have the power to help loved ones live out life in a stable, safe and even enjoyable fashion, without the caregiver completely sacrificing his/her own life in the process. Because caregivers may be called upon to quit jobs or give up their own needs, she stresses that the caregiver must continue to replenish her/himself over and over.
Throughout the book, Gail uses the nonlinear path of the labyrinth as her metaphor for the unpredictable twists and turns along the passage of caregiving. Many readers will find her 17 years of experience navigating that labyrinth helpful as they start or continue their own journey caring for someone else.
Passages in Caregiving is published by Harper Collins and is available now.