• Jane Gross Shares Life Lessons Through Caregiving

  • As a second-generation journalist and daughter of a nurse, former New York Times reporter Jane Gross felt well prepared for whatever life handed her. She tackled life the way she tackled her work: With sure-footed authority, tenacity and independence organized into a neat package consisting of a lead, transitions, pyramid style, and a nice ending quote.

    However, when her mother’s health took a sudden decline, Gross was propelled into the unfamiliar and disorderly world of caregiving.

    “Caregiving,” she writes in her book A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents and Ourselves, “is an experience that wrings you out … and at the end your heart is full and your eyes are open.”

    Before Gross helped revamp the “aging beat” for the New York Times, the column had featured somewhat quirky stories (90 year olds climbing mountains, octogenarians posing for cheesecake calendars, etc.). “There was no suggestion that advanced old age is really hard, really expensive and no suggestion that it was a two generational (at least) experience,” she says. With support of an editor, the beat morphed into stories that often ended up on the paper’s front page about aging parents and the adult children taking care of them. In 2008, when the New York Times was offering “early out” packages to downsize its staff, Gross took the opportunity to broker herself a deal as a contract employee and launch the New Old Age blog. While she had been assured by the Times technology staff that blogs grow very slowly, the New Old Age received more than 700 comments on its first day.

    But because of her deeply personal connection to the topic, Gross wasn’t really surprised at the amount of responses they received. “What was overwhelming was that I would get a 2,000 word comment – longer than the post – that would tell me in the most granular detail what the writer was going through.” And Gross could totally relate. “Part of the reason that I entirely stopped socializing during the last couple of years of my mother’s life is because I found myself incapable of having a normal conversation,” she recounts. “I was the most horrible example of that person who answers truthfully to ‘how are you?’ I had a very hard time with that.”

    That type of frank and honest accounting of her experiences is the basis for “A Bittersweet Season,” a book, she says, she wrote so people just won’t feel so alone and ill-prepared as they go through this experience … and to share a bit of what she learned along the way. “We were a family in the best possible position to go through this – educationally, financially — and we felt like we’d been hit by a truck,” she says. “The things we didn’t know were embarrassing … until I found out no one knows them. We were flying blind and making big mistakes … mistakes that made my mother’s life harder. I just didn’t want people to have to learn it from scratch like we did or to think they were having weird feelings.”

    A significant discovery for Gross was identifying what she terms “the in-between time” – that is, the time between being perfectly fine and dying. More times than not, says Gross, adult children or spouses will enact a state of denial, blocking signs of ill health and frailty.

    “Denial is so powerful,” says Gross, “even when presented with the statistics. You can tell someone either using data or your own experience anything and everything, and they still believe that their parent — and by extension, themselves — are going to be climbing the Himalayan Mountains one day and then just not wake up the next morning. No one seems willing to wrap their minds around what that in-between period looks like or can cost – both financially and emotionally.”

    And while denial prohibits some of this important dialogue and realization, the reversal of roles – parenting one’s parent – is a perilous tightrope as well. Many adult children are torn between respecting their parent’s independence and stepping in to assist. Witnessing a parent’s demise is no easy task … often compared to caring for a toddler. While there no ‘prize’ like parents receive for their caregiving – first dates, graduations, weddings, grandchildren — Gross says she received another prize.

    “The prize at the end of caregiving is that you’ve made the end of their lives as easy, comfortable, as happy as you could make them,” says Gross. “You take away for yourself the best memories you possibly can.”

    For a list of resources for caregiving, click here. We’d love to share your stories about caregiving for your loved one! Please drop us a note a pickettwrites@gmail.com!