Do you have aging parents? This week’s guest, Leighann Lord, is a stand-up comic and solo caregiver for elderly parents. Peter McGraw and Leighann discuss the challenges of being a caregiver and how those responsibilities are often taken up by people who are not married with children. Leighann gives tips for caregivers, and they finish by discussing some ways to begin prepping for getting older yourself.
Listen to Episode #31 here:
This episode’s guest, Leighann Lord, is a stand-up comic and solo caregiver for elderly parents. We discussed the challenges of being a caregiver and how those responsibilities are often taken up by people who are not married with children. She gives some tips for caregivers and we finished by discussing some ways to begin preparing for getting old yourself. I hope you enjoyed the episode.
Our guest is Leighann Lord. She is a stand-up comic and author of several humor books, such as Dict Jokes and Real Women Do It Standing Up. She’s the former co-host of Star Talk Radio with Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the Creator of the People with Parents Podcast, where she examines the role reversal between adult children and aging parents. Welcome, Leighann.
Thank you for having me.
For a long time, I’ve wanted to talk about caregiving aging parents from a solo perspective and that is as a single person for a good reason. One is there has been some research that shows that single children tend to do more of the caregiving than their married counterparts. That is if there are two kids in a family, one is single and one is married, the single one tends to do more of the caregiving when a parent starts to age and has problems, and so on.
Being married is the get-out-of-jail-free card, “I’m busy saving my marriage. I’m busy watching them sleep.” It’s one of the reasons to get out of this job.
I wanted to do something about caregiving. I have gone through it. I’ll talk to you a little bit about my experience. This is such a serious topic. I wanted a little bit of a lighthearted approach. We’ve been Twitter friends for many years now. I figured out that you have this podcast. I listened to some of the episodes and you take a humorous approach to explain your experiences. I thought we’d jump right in. You could talk about your story of actively caregiving parents.
I’m done one parent, which oddly enough doesn’t make it all that easier. They say two can live as cheaply as one. That’s not true either. These are societal myths but I started with two. I’m only down to one. It’s not my fault. I didn’t break one. I didn’t lose them at Home Depot. I got to admit, I went in a slow way. My parents are from that generation where everything is fine. The house is on fire, I just need a glass of water. My arm was hanging off, I just need duct tape. They were fine for a long time until they weren’t.
I started noticing more and more as I was performing, on the road, then I’d come back. We’re fine, I’d leave, I’d come back and they’re a little less fine every time. I want to say that it started about years ago. I lost track of time because once you’re in it, I went from being, I don’t want to say carefree but caring about me because they’re adults. They can take care of themselves all of a sudden, I know their social security numbers, their doctor’s names, what prescriptions they’re on, with dosages and what time they take it. I was like, “How did this happen to me?” It was a slow, incremental thing and it’s love. That’s how they get you.
Your mom had dementia.
My mom was diagnosed with dementia, most likely Alzheimer’s. She was my problem child, so to speak who got presented first. She got all my energy trying to figure out what’s going on and in the behind the scenes, my dad has helped started failing but it wasn’t that great. The whole stress of this, I learned that there are a lot of “ologists” like neurologists, urologists, nephrologists. I was like, “Why can’t we have a private care physician?” There’s so much more.
Are you New York City-based?
I’m New York City-based, born and raised.
Your folks were close to you in terms of living close by.
We are extremely close. We have a two-family house. We’re the family. We didn’t always have a two-family house. We had a single-family home and then it caught fire in the ‘90s and my parents rebuilt it as a two-family. At that time, it was like they did it for me so I’d have a place to come to when I was off the road performing and those roles changed. They were looking out for me and then I was looking out for them which is great and terrible.
I suspect I have a lot of readers who can’t relate. It’s one of these things where you can’t relate until suddenly you relate.
I had no idea this world existed at all. It’s like I tripped and fell down the rabbit hole. I had no idea taking care of, looking after, or being worried about aging parents was a thing. You’re right. You don’t know until you know. That’s why I did the podcast. If you’re not there yet, you won’t be as blindsided or you can ease into it with a little bit of awareness instead of complete and total meltdown shock.
I went through this with my mom. My parents were divorced. My dad died when I was in my late twenties. I was too young and not involved enough to be caregiving at that stage. Sadly, his mom was the primary caregiver. When it came to my mom’s decline, it happened very slowly. It was over fifteen years with the last seven or so being bad. The last 3 or 4 being terrible. In the case of my mom, I gave my sister a pass because she had two young children, a career, and my mom could be toxic and difficult. Inviting that energy into my sister’s life, I didn’t think it was going to be good for anyone frankly especially the kids.
I felt like I have the resources, money, I didn’t have the time, but I had the flexibility. I could handle her better than the average person. I had years of training and a great therapist. I knew that if I didn’t do it, no one else was going to be able to and that she was going to be worse off. I did it and I think it was the hardest thing I ever did. It was harder than my PhD which was the second hardest thing. My mom passed in 2012. I have a lot more distance from it all but I still think about it. I still think about how much it took out of me, how much it forced me to grow, and so on. You’ve done something that I haven’t done, which is I barely have ever talked about it.
I can’t shut up about it. I’m like, “Have I told you about my adult toddlers?”
That’s good. People need to hear about this. They need to know that it’s potentially on the horizon. They need to think about how they’re going to plan for it. They need to talk about it earlier rather than later. You could talk about some of the things that you’ve learned. You have talk, tips and you give advice to folks like us.
I’ll tell you why I talk about this. It’s incredibly selfish and it still is.
Is that a fact that you’re a comic?
It’s my mental health. When this started happening and any major change in your life especially if it’s to something unexpected and initially perceived as negative, you think you’re the only one. “This is only happening to you, why me?” I was struggling. I liked my parents. I grew up loving them. We were a very loving family. When I became an adult, I liked these people. I liked who they were as people. We spent lots of time together when I was not on the road. This shift in the relationship that a decline in their health was a real shock to me.
As a comic and artist, sometimes you process these things through your art. It’s no different than comics that get on stage and talk about the pain of dating, being married, getting divorced, and having kids. You’re talking it out as you’re living it. At first, I didn’t want to do that because I thought young people in the audience won’t understand. That’s not true because some of them are children of late in life parents, they’re taking care of grandparents, or they have folks in their family who are sick and need help. People come into this game on a lot of different levels but that’s what I learned when I started talking about it.
Did you start off by talking about it on stage telling jokes about it?
I did. I’m sure I had a frustrating day with my dad. I’m telling a story on stage being comic angry about it. Once I started doing that, people would come up and tell me stories about their parents or their dad, “Leighann, my dad, my mother-in-law, my this, and my that.” I realized there’s something here. The stand-up stage wasn’t always the place for it because it does depend on the makeup of the audience. These types of jokes wouldn’t necessarily go over well if I were performing at a college or on a midnight comedy club stage and I felt it deserved another outlet.
I started the podcast for these little stories. That’s how it started out. I’ve branched off to doing interviews. People want to talk about this experience and there are experiences other than mine that people can benefit from. Particularly people who have moved past this to let them know there is an after in what you do which might be hard to see when you’re in it. A lot of what I learned, I learned the hard way. I always heard of this mythical social worker that would swoop in out of nowhere and help you figure the system out. I’m still waiting on my fairy godmother’s social worker.
That didn’t happen. To ease into it and it does help if you have a good relationship with your parents. It’s exacerbated if you don’t. It’s also difficult if you’re at a distance. As much as I’m living in a two-family house and there were moments of, “Argh,” and there were moments of, “Huh,” because they were right there. If something happened, I was there. I could make choices and decisions right on the spot. I hear from people who don’t live close and it’s a very scary and frustrating thing that makes their job and their worry even more difficult.
One of the things that I like about your podcast is I get the sense of your affection for your parents. You tease and you make fun of them. You make jokes about what’s happening, but I can see how it comes from a place of love. That’s nice.
I had to discover this along the way, and you can hear it in the through-line of the podcast is I would get angry or get upset about something that was happening. I’m trying to take a step back and find that line between letting them have their independence and dignity, having that respect. It’s knowing when and how to step in so that I don’t rob them of those things and when to walk away? When to say, “I’m not having this argument. We’re not arguing about food, sir. If you want to eat all the peppermint candy, you may eat all peppermint candy. I’m not going to argue.” A big part of this when you’re in the trenches is picking your battles because you’re not going to win all the arguments nor do you want to have all the arguments.
The thing that makes some of this reversal as you talk about this difficulty is your parents aren’t becoming children. They’re still adults. It’s not the same as a parent-child relationship where you can say, “Because I said so.”
I did have a few of those moments. It’s best kept at a few because when I did use it, my parents were like, “She’s serious. We messed up.” I had some authority because why wouldn’t I let them be the adults they’ve been longer than me?
It is important for people to maintain their dignity and autonomy, especially when they have to lean on the person that they used to be leaned on from and to have their children doing this.
I, in no way, want to give the illusion that is in any way an easy dance to do. It is a life dance where the steps change every day and you don’t get a chance to practice, the music starts and goes.
I was doing mine long distance. I was in Boulder, Colorado and my mom was in New Jersey. It was hard because you get a phone call sometimes from a police officer, the hospital, a social worker or from her, “I’m in the hospital.” These kinds of things. Having to manage some of this stuff from afar is difficult.
I can’t even imagine because managing it here was challenging. Sometimes, I wasn’t always here. I’d be on the road. I’d be in another state. Of course, I kept my phone on. You can’t ever turn your phone off which is why I hate my phone. It’s like, “Who’s calling now? Is it them? Is it the insurance company? Is it a doctor?” The fear of the ringing phone became a thing. I’m in South America, the phone rings. It’s my dad and he doesn’t have a concept that I’m not in the country. He doesn’t like that. That’s where he was at that point. I’m like, “Dad, what’s up?” He goes, “I’m hungry. I haven’t had anything to eat.” I’m like, “That’s weird.” I had a home attendant here for my mom. Their main goal thing was taking care of my mom but they would also look after him as well. I had to take him at face value.
I didn’t know what to do about it in Argentina. There are some times you pull your brain freezes up with what do I do? I was on a corporate gig and my friend said to me, “DoorDash him something. Uber Eat him something.” I’m like, “I can do that from here?” He goes, “You can.” I had some food delivered. It’s very likely that he did eat and he didn’t remember. I also didn’t want to take that chance. If the shoe was on the other foot, my dad would not have hesitated to have gotten me something to eat. It’s a simple thing. It’s not the, “He’s in the hospital,” phone call. I can do something about the food. You eventually learn even the hospital. Let people do what they do. I’m not a doctor, nurse, or geriatrician. If they are in good hands, sometimes you have to let them be in good hands.
I understand. After my mom died, I started turning my phone off at night. I turned my phone off when I sleep. It’s a luxury that I didn’t have for a long time. You’re still dealing with it. Between the two of us, let’s do our best to prepare our fellow solo audience who may have to someday caregiver a parent or two. What are the things that they should know? What advice would you give them?
There’s some very practical advice that I will only share from my experience and not because I’m an attorney or an accountant.
The normal caveats, this is not law or accounting advice.
No, maybe law and order advice deal. “Don’t murder anybody,” that’s the best I can do on that freight. I hate to phrase it this way, “Where’s the money? Where are the accounts? Whose name is on there? Do you have access in case of an emergency?” You may not have that relationship, but where is stuff. You don’t want to be asking those questions in a difficult or emergency time. I was very lucky because my name was on her accounts since I was a teenager because she had that forethought. She thought it was important. She would go to the bank and take me with her. She wanted the bank managers and everyone to know who I was. At the time as a very young woman, I didn’t get it until the day I had to walk into the bank and do business without her.
There were no questions asked. They were like, “Hello, Miss Lord. How may we help you?” On my mom’s side, I was coming from a very fortunate situation. My dad, on the other, had this huge distrust of the internet, “I don’t want to do anything online. Write things in my checkbook.” I’m like, “Sir.” It was this fight that I’m like, “You don’t understand, dad. You were in the military, you worked for the city and you own a home. You are in the matrix. They have you. Providing a physical check is not going to be any different than me paying bills online for you.” Eventually, I took that over. Knowing not for nefarious reasons, but knowing the accounts, where they’re held? Can you get access? Do they still have access? It’s the financial part of it. Do they have wills? Not that you even need to be in it. You may not be but you should at least know what their wishes are. These are not easy conversations.
I wrote down a few ideas and I have exactly the same thing that you have which is, how do you plan for this? How do you get access? How do you get cooperation early? One of the things that I figured out is the government protects older adults unless you have Power of Attorney. If you want your parent to do something they don’t want, you have to go to court and show that they’re unfit to make decisions for them. That’s not something that a judge will grant lightly. Even if they’re making bad choices with their money, with their health, with their home, whatever those things may be especially if they’re not a danger to others, it’s often hard to demonstrate they’re a danger to themselves, the best route is through their cooperation. I don’t know about your parents, but if I had ever tried that with my mom, she would have fought me to the very bitter end. Both of us would have been worse off because I would have been removed from any caregiving and she would have been completely on her own. Broaching that topic ridiculously early, when it’s not even a threat, is a good idea.
When they’re not threatened and vulnerable, “What if I wasn’t here, what would happen?” Unfortunately, parents are like us. They’re human beings and nobody thinks they’re going to be 95 and vulnerable. Even if you plan for retirement, you may not plan for that. Who’s going to help you? Who’s going to make those decisions? Who’s going to keep you safe? There are things in place to take care of the vulnerable on a governmental level. Do you want the government to look out for you? Do you want the government to make those decisions? Even if they don’t choose an adult child, they have to choose someone who has their best interests at heart. In terms of getting that information, if you can, please get a professional. If you have the wherewithal or there are resources to get an elder care attorney that can help you navigate this and you do the paperwork correctly, I strongly advise that.
I’m a Gen X‑er and parents were always seen as the enemy. You’re more of a Millennial at least in your approach because you have this close relationship with your parents.
I guess that is Millennial life, but I’m very not Millennial. I had two old folks that I dig a whole hell of a lot.
That’s one great benefit of this new relationship for the problems that it may cause at times with kids being overly protected, one of the nice outcomes is that parents and their kids have a lot of affection for each other. They’re friends and friendlier than my generation was which get me out the way.
They can be where it gets tricky if the parent adult-child relationship was never good.
That where it becomes very hard.
Even if you do have a good relationship, please get a therapist.
I agree with that. I have that on my list. I had the same thing for you which is prepared early. It’s worth it to prepare ridiculously early for these things because it gets a conversation going. For example, I don’t have a partner and I was with my parents when they passed. When I croak, it falls on her. We had a conversation about, “These are the things that are going to you. I want to be cremated not buried. I want you to unplug me.” All these kinds of things. She has a playbook that she can comfortably execute based upon my wishes. We did all this stuff way early before and hopefully not when it becomes a problem.
You never know when that’s going to happen and that’s not necessarily age-related.
The one I have and this is related to what you said is get help early. You were talking about an elder care attorney. People have never even heard of that before.
Don’t get someone to defend you for murder unless that’s in your playbook. Get someone who knows elder care because it’s very specific. It’s a whole another world unless you’ve had some passing familiarity with it, you want somebody that knows the nuts and bolts and ins and outs.
You mentioned social workers. I had a mixed experience in my case with social workers at times they were helpful and useful and other times less so. They’re overworked and underpaid. It’s an incredibly important but difficult job. That was more helpful when we were in crisis.
That’s usually when I would meet a person in that area.
Don’t be afraid to ask the hospital if they have a social worker that you can speak to.
As a matter of fact, they should be seeking you out if you’re in the hospital and that’s usually what would happen. Find out and be sure that you’re aware of what their medical conditions are. My dad offhandedly mentioned to me one day that he was tired of getting up in the middle of the night multiple times to pee. He was going to have surgery and I’m like, “What?” My dad was 80 at that time. I’m like, “Who’s okay in surgery on an 80-year-old man? What’s your recovery time going to be like? Who’s here to help you? What’s going on?”
I started going to those appointments. I went to the appointment where he had to get cleared for surgery and he didn’t get cleared. They said, “You have to go to your cardiologist.” My dad’s like, “Okay.” I’m like, “You have a cardiologist?” I had no idea. We set up the appointment. I’m like, “I should go to this cardiology appointment.” I go and the cardiologist, Dr. Singh, a lovely man is running down all the problems with my dad’s heart. My dad is sitting there real quiet like none of this is news to him. It’s all news to me. I’m sitting there looking at my dad, I’m like, “What?” I need to start paying way more attention.
Find out what conditions or medical conditions that they have because, in case of emergency, you might need to answer a few questions. Do they have a bad heart? Do they have a kidney problem? Are they on particularly what medications? They might not be in a position to answer those questions if something happens and you can phrase it as like, “I want to be your advocate. I want to be able to speak up for you in case you can’t.” The power of attorney helps that by the way. From a knowledge point of view, you should know.
I never had that with my mom and we didn’t have these conversations early. We never sat down. All of this was trying to navigate.
I learned this on the job. This was completely on the job. I wish it wasn’t.
This is a long list. You might get an accountant involved for example. It might be easier to have that money conversation with their accountant if they have one. Their doctors, plural, potentially social workers, and you already talked about a therapist for yourself.
Don’t skip an appointment. This is not where you say, “I’ll be fine.” That’s the other thing we do especially if you have that caregiver thing. You will give more of yourself than taking care of yourself. Now is not the time. You cannot afford to let your care slide. There are statistics that show that caregivers begin to get sicker than the people they’re looking after or they get more depressed. It’s not optional to engage in self-care both physically and mentally. I went to the gym more when my dad was here and was sick than when he wasn’t because I knew I had to keep myself up. The energy required to manage multiple lives. It’s quite a bit.
The other one I wrote down, which I didn’t do was other caregivers, to find other people who are doing and dealing with this. When you go through a breakup, you can talk to almost any of your friends because they’ve been through breakups. I was relatively young when I went through this. I have friends who still have their parents. I have friends who are now starting this process. Seeking out other caregivers to learn from the folks who are in it or have gone through it, I would add to that list. Is anyone else you would add to your list?
I do want to say caregiver support groups are very important because this experience can be isolating. Once again, you think you’re all on your own. We haven’t said this already because you’ve talked about your sister but if you can have a family meeting. Don’t let all this fall on one person. If you can divvy up the responsibilities, somebody is not hands-on but they can make phone calls or they can be the voice on the other end. For some people, they are doing it all by themselves. If there are siblings, cousins, aunts, or uncles you’re like, “Everybody gathered around. This is what’s happening.”
I’m not disparaging my sister. I gave her out but she stepped up when my mom died because she was close. She dealt with the house. She stepped up in that way which was would have been especially difficult for me to do from afar. In the case of my mom, there wasn’t a lot of people to draw on but your point is a good one which is the village. Let’s get the village together and see what people are able to do.
When I first started going through this, I got advice from several people along the same vein that it almost doesn’t matter how many people are in the family. You could have ten brothers or sisters, and it falls to one person. There’s always that one kid. It’s not that you should let that slide but that’s what happens, you have to at least keep people informed or try to get help. They can’t help you if you don’t ask. If they ask and they don’t give, okay, but better to voice it than hold that resentment because that’s going to pop out when you don’t want it, probably at the funeral.
I like that a lot. No one ever teaches you how to do this. Good families have regular family meetings. They have conversations when things are going well. They plan their vacations. We should also sit and plan for when things are not going to go well.
We didn’t have a formal plan. Things were put in place and then it was me finding Easter eggs of how to deal with it. Initially, I didn’t deal with it very at all because I wanted my parents to be fine. I wanted them to be who they always were. Sometimes it’s difficult to see them with adult eyes. That could be the toughest part and to even acknowledge that they might need a little extra help.
When this tends to happen, people are in their building careers. They’re busy with their own adult lives. The idea of even trying to carve out that time can be difficult. What are some of your other observations and tips you have for people?
Patience. I will illustrate this way. When I was twelve years old, it is not an easy age for a little girl, my dad was very attentive. He was trying to talk to me. He wasn’t making any headway with me. He threw his hands up in the air and he’s like, “Baby, I’m doing the best I can. I’ve never had a twelve-year-old daughter before.” Fast forward to he’s 82 giving me a hard time and I’m trying to talk to him and figure it out. I realize I’ve never had an 82-year-old before nor has he been 82 before. This is his first time at that being an old man and understanding what that means.
How would you feel if someone suddenly said to you, “You can’t drive anymore?” When you start losing some mental acuity, some freedom, and the ability to do what you want when you want. Doing that shift of point of view, understanding how challenging and scary that is. How scary it would be for you so how must it feel for them? They might not handle it well. Their anger or resentment if they’re not angry or resentful to people isn’t personal. Sometimes you’ve got to give them a little space to handle that. There’s a lot of diplomacies that goes on here.
You’re right about that. I had written down compassion. This idea that there’s a tendency, especially for solo caregiver who steps up. Folks like you and me, the person who goes, “This is on my shoulders.” That person is usually not a screw-up. They’re an overachiever. What’s the saying is, “If you want something done, give it to a busy person.” The tendency is to have all the answers, “This is what we’re going to do next. We’re going to do this and this.” I’m like, “Let’s get it done.” The problem of course is this adult may not like your ideas. He may not like your timelines may be threatened by the loss of autonomy. There comes a time where they shouldn’t be in the home alone anymore. There is a transition to another space of assisted living and a nursing home, something like that which is clear as day to you but because their slide has been so incremental, they haven’t seen the big change. This is their home. The American dream is you build a home, you live in it. It’s your sign of success and independence and so on, and now someone wants to take that away from you.
That’s how it will be perceived.
I like to use the word, patience because you might need to have that conversation a number of times.
Let’s say that upfront. You’re going to have the same conversation over and over again because folks don’t remember. They say they forgot. They didn’t. Leave logic at the front door. I spent about a year and a half not understanding why my logical arguments were not being accepted. I realized we had crossed over from logic land and nobody’s told me. I’m like, “We’re going on feelings.” I made it hard for myself. I try to be type‑A perfectionist, “Here’s my PowerPoint of how this is going to happen,” and they were not impressed with me.
I get it. I went through the same thing. I found that it was because I couldn’t dictate, I did not have power of attorney and everything was a negotiation. For example, it was clear to me that my mom needed to move into assisted living. There was no doubt about it. She had fallen, a number of bad experiences, and a danger to herself on her own. She would not agree to do that and even more, she thought she was angry with me for doing it. What I ended up having to do was say her, “I understand why you don’t want to leave the house. I can’t force you to do that. I will help you do it when you’re ready to do it. I will pay for it. I will find it. I will let you vet it. These are all of the things that you will do that I will do and you will do in order for this to be the best situation possible.”
What I had to say to her was, “I cannot enable you to continue to make that decision.” That is, “You won’t agree to move to assisted living, but I won’t agree to do certain things that put you in danger.” This was one on my list was this idea of safety first. There are lots of things that need to be done but the most important thing is to try to keep your parent as safe as possible. They don’t become a danger to themselves or especially others. This issue of driving comes up. At some point, my mom had become a dangerous driver but her car had broken down and she wanted me to get her new car or a used car.
I said, “Mom, you should be living in assisted living so you don’t need a car. I can’t force you to do that but I am also not going to get you a car. If you want to continue driving, you need to get a car yourself. You need to find that way to do that. I don’t think you should have a car though. I don’t think that financially, it makes any sense for you. From a safety standpoint for you and others, you shouldn’t.” For her, the car was independent. This was pre-Uber. She was facing being more isolated but I had to draw a line in the sand that was like, “I know you want this car. I can afford to get you this car, but I’m not going to get you this car because it’s bad for you. I’m not going to enable you to make that decision.”
This is particularly for your audience, if you don’t have a problem being the bad guy, standing up and making that declaration, that’s great. Even if you do, what might make that a little easier is to enlist a doctor. The next time there’s a medical intervention, pull the doctors to the side and said, “Can you talk to them about driving?” If it’s a doctor that you have a relationship or you know and it’s not the emergency room doctor unless they’re there for a car accident, it’s a different things. Sometimes, they hear it from a professional. Once again, it’s the same way when you were a teenager, your parents can tell you something a million times, you hear it from your favorite celebrity and now it’s the gospel. Enlist allies and friends. If your parent has a friend who stopped driving, even better because we’re influenced sometimes by our friends and not by our family but the driving thing is huge.
Almost all of these insights I got through the help of a therapist which was how to have these conversations to assure your parent how much you love them, care about them and how their health and wellbeing is your most important thing. In the same way, parents want their kids to be happy but they care about their kids’ health more than their happiness. A parent will let you have a slice of cake but they’re not going to let you eat the whole cake. Parents are willing to disappoint their children for their children’s wellbeing.
Children should be willing to disappoint their parents for their parent’s wellbeing. Those were hard conversations to have with my mom, where I had to say, “I’m not going to force you to do anything you don’t want, but I’m worried about you, I care about you, here’s what I think would be the best situation.” She was much more isolated than I think than the average person. Your point about bringing in professionals, doctors, friends in order to communicate that message from someone who will be seen as less threatening. There’s something about your kid telling you what to do.
They can always pull the, “I changed your diaper’s card.” Not a lot of people on the planet can pull that card on you and that’s got to be jarring. That example, you have to start thinking in a bigger, broader sense of what resources do you have because the tendency is if I’m a recovering workaholic control, freak, perfectionist. I’m like, “I’m smart. I can figure this all out. I could do it all myself. I wonder why I’m curled up in a ball in the corner at the end of the day.” You have to start thinking in a bigger, broader picture, “What are my resources? Who can I ask for help? Who can lend a word here?” It’s too big of a job and also getting comfortable with the idea that you’re not going to get it all done and you can’t do it all.
My favorite word became, no. “No, we’re not doing that.” What happened is they would have doctor’s appointments and I learned to group them. When I’m in town and when we can get the most done. I thought we were having medical appointments, my parents thought we were having a social outing. They would go and the doctor was like, “What’s wrong?” They go, “Nothing.” “First of all, you’ve been complaining the whole time, we made the appointment for a specific reason, here’s what they say as well.” That’s number one. We would leave there. My dad would be like, “Let’s go to lunch. Let’s go to the store.” I’m like, “These are different things, sir.” That’s a different outing. Had I let them, we would have run around all day when they didn’t have the energy and I didn’t have the time.
What else comes to mind? As I’m listening to you, I’m thinking, “I wish I knew this stuff when I was going through this thing.”
I do too. That’s why I talk about it. I can almost tell when I see my friends now or colleagues. I swear there’s an adult child look like they’re frazzled and it’s how did I get here? I would see it when I took my dad in for appointments. Though my mom had full appointments at the clinic and I teach other adult children there and we were all shell shocked like, “Is there a wine bar? Can I go and sit in the corner?” Especially in the beginning, it can be a lot if you don’t have any help but as much as you can get ahead of it, you can get professional help, you can make sure that you are taking care of yourself, you can take some of the pressure off and realizing that this is some stuff you can’t do.
I’m a bookworm. I always feel that the answer is in a book somewhere. It’s not always the case but I do recommend Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal. I will tell you that’s a hard book to read. I couldn’t have read it years ago and you follow him and his journey. He’s a doctor. He writes a lot about geriatric issues and it helps to get you comfortable with the idea that we don’t last forever. There comes a point when you have to make a decision between the quality of life and quantity of life. Quantity does not equal quality. What that means and what you want your time with your family, with people you love to look like. When you’re in that spot, that’s not easy.
That book is outstanding. I read it too late.
I read it right in the middle in terms of my dad and it was life-changing. I cried through the first two chapters but I said I’m going to finish it. I’m glad that I did. It changed my outlook and it helped me understand that I was trying to do what my parents did. I was trying to be Mr. and Mrs. Fix it, all-in-one. That’s what they were in my life. If there’s a problem, we’ll fix it, we’ll handle it, and we’ll do it and there’s some stuff that can’t be fixed.
There were a couple of things that stood out in that book for me. One was there’s a figure in there where there are a drop-off and health quality. What ends up happening is there some events and there’s a big drop in health quality and then the medical community will get you up, but not all the way up to where you were before. There’ll be another event and it’ll get you up, but not up. It’s this stepwise, imagine this jagged set of steps down. That’s what the end of life looks like. These two steps back, one step forward kind of thing.
I always felt like we were on a sled and I’m the head of the sled. I’m managing this pell-mell downhill slide down the mountain somehow. That’s what it felt like, this plunge. Atul Gawande mentioned having the medical folks intercede. Most of them want to do their best. Their job is to fix. Some of them have a very hard time with the idea that there’s something that they can’t fix or that this is the best they can do. To compound that we don’t have enough geriatricians. If I was going to make another recommendation for folks, if your parent is of a certain age and I don’t know what age to call that, over 65, definitely over 70. It’s the same way a child needs a pediatrician and senior adult needs a geriatrician because they are not prescribing to symptoms. They can look head to toe and take in the totality of that person and include their age because age becomes a factor. You read any bottle of Tylenol, Advil, or whatever, “Up to age 65.” That’s on the label for a reason. Sometimes medicines have a different interaction with your body when you’re older.
That’s good advice. One of the things that struck me about the Being Mortal book was something I never would have thought of and it was feet. These geriatricians will take a look at the patient’s feet and like, “What are the feet look like? What are the toenails like? Do they have a fungus? Are they washing?” How something as simple as your feet can become an indicator for your general overall health and the care that you’re undergoing and so on. It was fascinating to me. It made me comfortable getting a pedicure.
I sorely miss at this time. I can’t wait to go to the salon. I’ll get it maybe sometime in 2022.
There’s a whole bunch of other things in the book. The book is outstanding. It’s great. The need for purpose is something that comes up. People need something to live for. They need a reason to get out of bed in the morning. They need a reason to take good care of themselves. These are adults and people who live full lives. They raised families. They had careers. They need compelling things to do. That’s something that is important to try to foster as a caregiver.
I’m even trying to think about that now. I have some birds of a feather, me and my type A friends, we have this discussion periodically that we need a hobby. We need something to do that’s enjoyable and not sedentary because when you work and work, when do you even retire? What are you doing now? What are you interested in? I was never worried about that with my dad. He was used to getting it out. He loved running around town. He was busier after he retired than when he had a job. He would come to me with my shows. He was that kind of guy. He always had stuff to do. He started going to the senior center and then he stopped and I said, “Dad, why did you stop?” He goes, “Because they’re old, cranky and angry.” He liked being around young people.
From listening to your podcasts, I was like, “I like Leighann’s dad.”
Everybody loved my dad.
He seems like one of those guys who’s a bit of the life of the party. By the way, guess where you got it from?
I don’t even have it to the degree that he had it. My dad was a very charismatic and very thoughtful man. He had the ability to talk to the janitor and the CEO. He’s like, “You want to talk to the janitor though? He has the keys to everything. The CEO doesn’t.” On the other hand, my mom was always more a bit of a loner. I guess opposites attract. She liked being home, doing her photo albums and writing letters. The approach to how we deal with that with her was different because you can’t change someone’s personality. It’s not going to suddenly change. My dad, he’d rip and run, go to Atlantic City anytime. He loved it. What do you do to help people continue working or finding a purpose that still fits who they are? That’s tricky. It’s almost a cautionary tale, “Who am I now? Am I going to be that chick in twenty years? Is that sustainable? I need a hobby.”
Let’s do this. I’m going to add one thing to the list and then we should transition. The last thing we talk about is, how we prepare ourselves to be older people. My last piece of advice is you don’t have this luxury given your career choice but some companies offer family leave. In the same way that you can take a leave of absence because you have a child, it’s possible to take a leave of absence because you’re caregiving, someone. My university offers some form of family leave. I did not do that. In hindsight, I wished I had. It was so incredibly difficult to maintain everything that I was doing trying to teach my classes, to publish research, to work on books, to try to have a social life, to take care of my own health and wellbeing, to caregiver from afar. They call it benefits for a reason. It’s in the benefits department. I encourage people to take that benefit if they need it. There’s this like have a stiff upper lip. It doesn’t feel the same as having kids on. I say, take the family leave if it’s offered to you.
Flabby upper lip, stop trying to white knuckle your way through this. You don’t get any points for suffering. I’m an independent freelance artist, for most of my life, that’s been wonderful and then stuff like this happens and there’s no family leave when you work for yourself. Because of my career, how I book things, and how I travel, what I did have was a little bit more flexibility. I could be there for a Tuesday, 2:00 appointment, and not necessarily every Tuesday. When I was the one scheduling things, I knew when I was in or out of town. What looks negative ended up helping me, but was still incredibly hard. You’re right. If there’s a benefits department and you have that, write on in there with no shame and help yourself.
There is no shame in it. It’s there for a reason. You’ve brought up a couple of things that you talked about for younger people to consider. What’s fascinating is people will prepare for their retirement. That is they’ll save money theoretically. Some people will but they prepare in no other way. Let’s chat for a few moments as we wrap up about how you prepare to become that older adult and had some of this off. I have a book recommendation. I’m sure the name of it is called Younger Next Year. It’s a fun book. It’s written as a conversation between the author and his doctor. One of the things that I remember it had a big effect. I read it very young. It a kind of book you want to read in your 50s or 60s, but I read it in my 40s. One of the things that came out was the importance of muscle mass. As a man, starting at age 40, the average man loses 1% of his muscle mass every year.
That’s if he does nothing.
The answer is you can stave this off by doing weight training. If you’re not weight training, you lose 1% of your muscle mass every year. To me, that doesn’t sound that bad but the problem is that our muscles are incredibly important for our metabolism, balance, to be able to exercise and move around, they protect us when we fall. There are all these things that muscle does for us. One of the pieces of advice is the importance for older adults to be trying to maintain and/or build muscle.
We should be on steroids. That’s what I heard.
There are these longevity folks who are focused on things like human growth hormone and things around that. Those around out on the edges of like, “I’m not sure that’s always a good idea.” If you take human growth hormone, it may be good for muscle, but it also helps your tumors grow. You’ve got to be careful about some of that stuff. You alluded to one which is like, “Do you now have habits and interests that will translate into your 70s and 80s?”
That sounds crazy to be thinking about that now, but I do. I don’t want anything that’s more sedentary. I periodically reteach myself how to play chess because it’s a game I wish I had learned earlier in life. I have this fantasy dad that would teach me how to think better, but I still feel it keeps your mind sharp, thinking about moves and objectives. Even if you’re playing on your phone, that’s a little bit better than solitaire. There is no judgment in terms of sharpness.
You want to challenge yourself to stop challenge yourself physically, mentally, and socially just because you’re retired.
The way I watched my dad do retirement, he seemed to go at life with even more gusto. The job was holding him back. It was a very different thing. I got very different lessons watching both of them, but that’s why you need two, or I needed two because I got so much out of both of them. This is a very personal pet peeve of mine. Get hold of your stuff. Start cleaning and downsizing, get rid of stuff. Do you want to live in a home that reflects who you are? Do you want to live in a mausoleum of yourself? Understanding nobody wants your stuff. Get a dumpster and get some contractor bags. They don’t want it. They don’t want that figurine you bought in 1982 at Great Adventure. Nobody wants it.
I always say that’s the stuff that people are going to throw out when I die.
If you look at your home with that eye, you realize, “I am drowning in crap.” There’s also a window on that. I like the organization. I like cleaning. It might’ve been another career, who knows? There’s a woman I follow on YouTube who talks about this. She had an episode saying that you have to take charge of your stuff while you have the physical ability to do it. If you think about the energy it takes to clean. You’re down on your knees, you’re reaching, and you’re lifting stuff. If you’re losing 1% muscle mass a year, can you do that when you’re 70? Maybe not. Having the ability to take care of your stuff and whoever you want it to go to, what you want to throw out, or how you want to downsize, and you want to make those decisions before somebody has to come in and do it for you. Can you imagine somebody walking in and making decisions about your stuff while you’re here? When you’re not here, you don’t care but you should care especially if you have loved ones. Do I want to leave this job for somebody else? We haven’t thought that way.
You and I might be cut from the same cloth. You strike me even in your background that I could see. You’re a tidy individual.
I like to be tidy but having the opportunity to do a little bit more cleaning, a little bit more organizing like, “Let me make this area prettier.” It makes me feel better.
I tend to break that way too. There is something useful about purging and that renewal. I like the idea of spring cleaning and cleaning out a closet. Owning stuff that you don’t want is a burden. Having a shirt that’s in your closet that you’ll never wear is more of a burden than the pain of donating it. That burst of the pain of getting rid of it is a worthwhile pain versus seeing it there and being tempted, “I’m not going to.” That’s wasted decision energy that you don’t need to.
The keyword there is a decision. You have to make a decision. Don’t put that decision off on somebody else. You bought it, you put it in your closet, make a decision. It’s okay to say, “I bought this with the best of intentions. I never wore it. Someone else will find some joy in this. I bought this years ago. I’m not that person anymore.” Even if you still fit it, it’s not necessarily you ate a lot of tater tots and drink a lot bourbon.
It’s important to feel good about the clothes that you wear and the space that you live in. These lessons as you prepare for older adulthood and for helping an older adult go hand-in-hand. Helping your adults be healthier for them to get exercise, have a purpose in life, to have to be in a space that they feel proud of and feel comfortable in, and are safe.
On that safety note, let me say a word about stairs. When they first bought the two-family house, we have two flights of stairs which when they originally bought the house in 1965 and everybody was young. I wasn’t even here yet but everybody’s young, run over downstairs. You don’t think about what that’s going to be when you’re 60 or when you’re 70. Particularly, when we have a culture for the moment has decided to age in place, that flight of stairs might not be so easy in a few years shorter than you think it might be. One elevator, ranch style home, or something that’s easy on the body. Think about your surroundings. What’s easy to do now may not be easy to do tomorrow like shoveling snow.
I fell down a flight of stairs in my house and thank God I was young and fit. It bruised me up a bit. As an older person, it could have been devastating. I understand that. That’s a good one. I expect that if someone’s reading this, the most important thing is to put this on the radar. This may go smoothly, it may not be a problem, and so on, but to start thinking about it and to start having those conversations is the first place to start. In part because it’ll be a good way to gauge how cooperative your parents will be. If they’re on board, they’re like, “You’re right. We should do this. We don’t have a will. We should work out the power of attorney. We should start doing this. You can do it at a more leisurely pace. You can start identifying some of the pitfalls that may have in terms of health conditions and so on.” If they’re not cooperative, that also can be useful to know.
You’re gearing yourself up for the future fight. Better to know it than not. Do you know what can also be helpful? A horror story from their own age group. If they have a friend and they were fine, all of a sudden something happens and they needed help. When you hear about that, you’re like, “Mom, I heard Aunt so-and-so, or your friends Kristin,” and saying, “What would we do?” Sometimes, finding that point of entry other than, “What are the bank accounts, and what are your doctor’s names?” You don’t want to necessarily bulldoze your way in. That’s another tip to give that an easier point of entry.
That’s great advice. I have these conversations. Bear with me on this tangent. Occasionally, I’ll have a student in a program who’s not a good fit. They’re not doing well. They’re struggling. They’re not happy. The program is not happy. No one is happy. If it keeps going, there’s a chance they’re going to get thrown out of the program. That’s the worry. That’s bad. You don’t want the stigma of that and so on. What I will often do is I’ll sit them down and I’ll ask them how it’s going and then I’ll raise some possibilities.
I say, “Here are three different possibilities as I see this. I’m not endorsing any of them. I want you to hear and think about them. I want us to revisit this at some time in the future.” I let them go off and do their thing. That can be a good first step, which is, “Mom, Dad, I know this is way early but here are these things that I want us to talk about. There are these different kinds of scenarios. I want to bring it up. I want you to think about it and we can talk about at some later date.” There are no surprises. They get a chance to talk and think about it. They can choose to ignore it if they want but they know it’s coming back at some period of time.
It’s the cat versus dog approach. You can surprise a dog. A dog is always going to be happy. With a cat, you’ve got to take your time with the cat. You got to ease into it. Let the cat get comfortable. I can only say this as a new cat mom or I should say cat consort.
If you’re in it and in the thick of it right now, the big one talking to you and hearing it is this idea of you’ve got to take care of yourself first. I used the safety briefing for planes which is an oxygen mask that may fall from the ceiling. Please put your oxygen mask on before helping others. That is the number one thing when it comes to adult caregiving.
People hear that. You’ve heard it your entire life as a traveler. You don’t get it until you’re drowning. You are darn near-drowning and you go, “I should have put my mask on.” Trust me, people will hear this and they will still flail about. Some folks have to learn stuff the hard way. This is one of those hard lessons. I’ve reached this point where I realized if I’m not okay, all of this falls apart, every bit of it. I used to tease them. I’m like, “You guys wouldn’t last six months without me.” It stopped me in a joke and it stopped being six months. It was three months, a month or a week. It got that dire. I’m like, “If it’s that dire and it’s riding on me, guess what? I’m taking care of me.” Taking care of me takes care of you all.
Leighann, you are great. You have so much wisdom. You communicated in such a fun way. If you’re not thinking about a book, you should think about a book.
I am thinking about a book. I can’t believe my podcast has been years are largely these little stories that are all written. I have them all. It’s compiling them not for the podcast but for a book that I think will make people smile and grab for a Kleenex.
You have a lot of wisdom to share with the world. I appreciate you taking the time to share it with Solo.
Thank you for the invitation. This is great. I love this.
Thanks again for your time. Where can people find you?
My website is VeryFunnyLady.com. I am on all social media. I’m on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, it’s Leighann Lord Comedy. I’ve been posting a lot more video lately since people seem to need entertainment much more since we’re not necessarily enjoying it in life. You can find my podcast anywhere where you would get your favorite podcasts, but the source of it is PeopleWithParents.com.
It’s great. Leighann, thanks again. Cheers.
- Leighann Lord
- Dict Jokes
- Real Women Do It Standing Up
- Star Talk Radio
- People with Parents Podcast
- Younger Next Year
- Instagram — Leighann Lord
- Twitter — Leighann Lord
- Leighann Lord Comedy — YouTube
About Leighann Lord
Leighann Lord is a stand-up comedian and the author of several humor books including Dict Jokes and Real Women Do It Standing Up. She is the creator of the People with Parentspodcast (where she talks about the role reversal between adult children and aging parents); and is a former co-host on StarTalkRadio,with Neil de Grasse Tyson. Leighann has been seen on Comedy Central, HBO, and The View, and was recently seen on Netflix in the Def Comedy Jam25th Anniversary Special.
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