Jul 302012

Caregiving blogger Sherri Snelling spoke to actors Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker about their journey in caring for Jill’s mother who has dementia.  At the heart of their story is family and how “eat, pray, love” may be their new catchphrase when it comes to caregiving. 

What struck me the most when I spoke to Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker – her partner in marriage, career and life – was that in all things they are a team.  We even did the interview with the two of them together, at their suggestion, and it gave me a glimpse into how their special bond of support, respect and caring for each other is a recipe for all couples who face a tough caregiving situation.  In fact, their story is about love of family and food and the ingredients needed to keep it all cooking.  Jill and Mike are like salt and pepper shakers – two distinct personalities and characters – but you never pass one without the other.

We all watched them as one of our favorite TV couples in the 80s and 90s in their roles on the Emmy-winning series L.A. Law (what boomer woman can forget the famous Venus Butterfly episode?).  Since then, both Mike and Jill have thrived as solo artists – Mike as an actor and as an acclaimed author, and Jill as a continually sought-after star on stage and screen with her latest turn in the movie, Young Adult.   However, it is when they are performing together – whether it is playing the couple in Broadway’s Love Letters, or caring for Jill’s mother with dementia – that they really are at their best.

 Our House in Umbria

For many years, New York City-based Jill and Mike, have been vacationing with friends – sometimes for weeks, other times for months – in the lovely Italian countryside in the Spoleto Valley of Umbria, Italy.   This is where the couple recharges – the sumptuous food that infuses Mike’s meals, the chilled wine, the warm people, the beauty of the olive trees and the vineyards versus the urban jungle – it is their version of Cinema Paradiso.

It was on one such trip about six years ago that Jill and Mike went from the calm of their Italian reverie into the storm of caregiving.  Jill’s mom, Lora, was 87-years-old at the time and had been living in a Santa Barbara, Calif., assisted living facility for several years with her husband, Ralph.  Although Lora had been hard of hearing for more than 40 years and had been experiencing some memory lapses, she was in pretty good health for an octogenarian.  But Jill had recently grown worried.  Her mom had started having paranoid fantasies according to Ralph and she had survived a fall, which according to the Centers for Disease Control puts 2 million seniors into emergency rooms every year, and Ralph was not in good health.  Just a few days into their latest Italian sojourn, Jill and Mike got the call that Ralph had died.

“All of a sudden I felt so far away,” says Jill.  She had been anxious of leaving her mom before this trip and now the guilt washed over her for not being by her mom’s side.   As the weeks rolled by after Ralph’s funeral, Jill’s daily phone calls to her mom could no longer bridge the 3,000-mile distance.   After a few in-person visits and more falls, it became clear to Jill that her mother needed more care. But, moving her into the assisted living’s dementia care center seemed wrong.  Jill still was not sure Lora was “there yet,” Lora would be isolated from neighbors and friends and as Jill says, “It just wasn’t family.”

While at first Mike felt some resentment as his Umbrian dreams were put on hold and his concerns mounted about the toll this would take on his wife, he said, “Jill’s focus was on her mom but my eye was on Jill.  My new job was to help her do the right thing.”

 Mamma Mia!

One of the toughest decisions for caregivers, especially those 7 to 8 million long-distance caregivers of older parents, is wondering whether it is better to have them live in a special facility that can provide the care they need or move them into your home or closer to you so that you can care for them.

“My mom was calling people at all times of the night, wandering off and eventually it got to a point where she was physically attacking the nurses caring for her after a bad fall,” says Jill.  “One night we went to dinner with our son Max, and he said what I had been in denial about, ‘you have to move Lolo to New York City.’  At that moment I looked over at Mike and he just nodded and I knew this is what we had to do.”

Many caregivers of older parents, even those who are married or who have siblings who can help, often tell me they feel “all alone.”  While Jill is an only child, the secret ingredient in her caregiving situation is that she never had that feeling – she had Mike.

“It was a huge moment in that restaurant when I looked at Mike and I just knew no matter what, he was going on this journey with me,” says Jill.  “Believe me, the last thing Mike wanted to do was have my mother in our lives every minute.  Even though he loved her, Mike felt my personality changed, and not for the better, when I was around my mother.” Now, not only would Mike have Lora in the same city but he would have to live with the “two Jills.”

What came next is something almost all caregivers face because so few families have that essential caregiving conversations before a crisis hits. (In fact, only one-third of all caregivers have had any conversation with their older loved one about long-term care.)   Jill and Mike had to look for the paperwork to close Lora’s bank and other accounts; they had to deal with Lora’s expired passport and driver’s license to get her on the plane to New York.  They also needed to find a memory care facility in New York City, and the list didn’t stop there.  After the move to New York, it eventually became clear that although Lora needed almost constant care, the facility that Jill and Mike found for her was not a good fit.

Caregiving As An Ensemble Show

The solution came when the apartment literally across the hall from Jill and Mike became available and they moved Lora (whom the family calls Lolo) in.  Around the same time both son, Max, and their daughter, Alison, from Mike’s first marriage, found themselves living in New York and helping out with caregiving duties.  Alison, who is a chef and personal caterer, cooks most of Lora’s meals, Max gives his parents some respite by playing companion to his grandmother (when he is not playing drums in his band) and two professional nurses round out the “a la famigla” that Mike had always envisioned as part of their Italian excursions but is actually now playing out in the Big Apple.

Photo courtesy of Kristine Walsh

“We could not have planned it better but going through this experience really brought us together as a family,” says Mike.  Besides the familial ties, Mike believes his gifts from caregiving are that he and Jill have become even closer and that he is now more realistic about his future and how he will want his family to care for him.  Jill told me that she feels caregiving has taught her to “just let things happen and to not be in denial because it doesn’t serve you.”   She also feels it has improved the communication she and Mike have and his support has allowed her to really discover who she was through this experience.

As the “Tuckerberry” family gathered recently for Lora’s 93rd birthday, Jill and Mike have proven successful as both co-stars on screen, in life and in caregiving.  When I think of Jill and Mike, I think of Julia Child’s quote, “…nothing is too much trouble if it turns out the way it should.”

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About Blog Author Sherri Snelling

Sherri Snelling, CEO and founder of the Caregiving Club, is a nationally recognized expert on America’s 65 million family caregivers with special emphasis on how to help caregivers balance “self care” while caring for a loved one. She is the former chairman of the National Alliance for Caregiving and is currently writing a book about celebrities who have been caregivers.

  31 Responses to “Jill Eikenberry & Michael Tucker Are Cooking Up a New Caregiving Recipe”

  1. This is what the word "Family" means,coming together in times of trouble and stress. My wife's dad had Alzheimers back in the early 80's, it began with little things,such as attending a concert,going to the toilet at the break and ending up out on the street bewildered and lost,that was the beginning of a sad journey for most of us. I have read a lot of posts and blogs concerning family disputes on caring equal time,it just does'nt happen like that, life is not fair.

    Some family members can handle the situation, the cleaning and washing of a parent,some cannot,they can't help it, they don't love their parent any less, they even feel guilty when they leave before the washing begins,there are victims all over within the family unit. My wife, being the youngest daughter was her dad's pet when she was young and there was a special bond between them, and we lived only about half a mile away from him and his wife so we were always on call,no big deal!! I did the night shift,sleeping in an arm chair by the fire,with one eye open in case he entered with his Blackthorn stick seeing me as an intruder.In the day time we would bring him to our house where when he would get agitated and cross I would play him "The Clancy brothers and Tommy Makem" and the "Kingston Trio" singing "Roddy McCorley" which he loved.The anger would disappear,the foot would tap,the palm of the hand would tap his knee,his eyes would light up and a smile would appear on his face,music is the best drug in the world,but only when they know the music!!

    He has since passed on to a happier place,it took it's toll on my wife but Thank God she is a strong woman who loves all her brothers and sisters as much as she ever did,a happy ending to a sad story, my wife sometimes mentions her father's favourite quote "It's by each other we live". how true that quote is.

    • Wow, I love that quote, "It's by each other we live." I care for my mom who has moderate stage Alzheimer's and have been doing this for seven years. She is now 89, I am 50 and my daughter is 15; I tease that together we are the Three Stooges!

      • Lisa, I'm showing my age but I remember Curly, Larry and Moe!! If you can laugh at adversity,then you're winning the battle,good luck!!

    • Thank you Micheal for sharing your experience, you do the caregiving but really you can call it love giving. I have this video song if you can share it it would be great and hope you can relate to it

      Bakhus Saba

  2. What a great blog post! Caregiving definitely is a team effort. I’m glad to read such a positive story. So many families struggle to keep it all together!

  3. My mother died at an early age of this horrific disease.I know my mother would never ever want to live like this .This is not living. I miss her .She is with God , and the rest of the family not suffering this evil disease anymore . Peace to everyone that has to deal with this.

  4. This story really rings true. I am an only child caring for my 89 year old mother who has moderate Alzheimer's. If it takes a community to raise a child, it takes a family to care for an elderly person, with dementia. I am also a single parent of a 15 year old teenager, that I have sole custody of. Our "family" is mom, me and my daughter, and one sole cousin who comes regularly to visit. The fact that my mom, myself and my daughter are only children, limits our blood relatives. Our "extended family" is my church, which also includes the churches of our small town community in which I grew up. I also feel that the slogan, "eat, pray, and love" is a good phrase to use. We watch our diets very carefully, to help with memory and the stresses we are under. We wrap ourselves in prayer, and the prayer of our loved ones. Love is the glue that holds it all together.

    • Lisa, Your article contains one of the most important words in our world,the word is COMMUNITY, it is the essence of what we were,are and hopefully we will continue to be.Again, you're lucky having the support of a small town community and your local church.If one of the church members is a doctor talk to him/her,ask questions about the progression of Alzheimers.you will be told the truth, and you will feel good when you,your daughter and cousin realize that collectively you have given all you can give to your Mom,believe me it's a "Feel good factor". In life all we can do is our best,you cannot better that. Good luck and keep the faith, it can move mountains.

  5. They did the right thing. While I admire them for it I am also envious. I tried caring for my mom with help from family, but we could no longer provide the care she needed at home, for a myriad of reasons, which my brain told me justified placing her my heart won't accept every day I think about bringing her home, and trying to figure out how I can make it happen. I continue to fall short. My advise, keep them home as long as you can, if it doesn't feel right placing them, it isn't nor is the guilt.

  6. hi my name is Kathy my hubby who has alzheimers is in like stage 3 of alzheimers im having a rough time now with all that is going on with him all i can say is he is my soul mate i will be there to th,.e end he was told may of 2008 he has alzheimers its the hardest thing i have ever had to deal with i was trained in alzheimers when i was working as a home health aid, my hubby now does very little for himself does say more then three words all day and nite ,it is a very horrible disease to deal with here is a man who worked all his life 48 years at same job no retirement just to get dianoised with this horrible diease im deaking with this mainly on my own some famiy members have actually walked away. that is very hard for me to understand because he is the same person he always was just has memory lost . so far he still knows me but he dont know alot of people .if you are around him on a daily basic he knows who you are if not he dont know you .

  7. Beautiful Story. Not to take anything away from them but it certainly helps when their is plenty of money to do what you have to do as far as moving them, caregivers, private nurses etc. It is something totally different when you can't do all the things that that money can buy or have a parent who has very little or did no preparation. No matter how much money you have it is still a horrible disease to deal with.

    • Sandy, I take your point.Money is a huge factor in dealing with Alzheimers.however, only if it gives you a chance to take a break, a weekend or even a week away from the depression and stress thus enabling you an opportunity to recharge your batteries.Assuming that there are other family members would you consider sharing and caring with them in shifts? My late grandmother used to say "Sharing is caring",and grannies are usually right. Take care of yourself.

      • Getting away is wonderful if you have family to help you – but there are so many out there who don't have that kind of help and desperately can't afford the kind of care told in this blog. There are those who end up in a nursing home that provide the minimal care that the law allows and what family is left bear the shame of not providing for the mother or father they love and just watch they fade away. Sometimes you have to let this happen because of working 2 jobs just to put food on the table for your own kids and live with the knowledge that you can't care for your own parent. Nice to hear about those who have the big bucks to care for their parent(s) but that's just for the rich minority and it makes for a good story.

        • I agree GMR. I'm not there yet but I see the writing on the wall. Family? yes, one brother moved to Florida early on to do his retirement bit, while the other brother who was very helpful right after my dad died, suddenly dropped the ball on me and said he could no longer "take it", he needed to do things at his house and his kids' houses now that he was retired as well. He barely shows up once a month to mow the lawn. My sister still works and hubby has lung cancer so she's been staying away, giving him all her free time. I hired caregiver for mom 3 days/week so I can go home to my husband and rest up. I have only one day a week for my own appts. No one cares, and no one even asks. It's like they're afraid to get involved. They've distanced themselves enough so they won't feel the pain that you're talking about when the time comes.

          • Jill, You are one lucky daughter of God he loves and trsuts you SO much, that he gives you EXTRA refining, because at the core of it all he knows you are an amazingly beautiful diamond! Unfortunately to get to that most beautiful inner sparkling core, we must go through the trials that chunk away our rough parts.I’ve been on my own journey of loss throughout these last several years. Literally losing almost everything of temporal value after living a very comfortable life. I want you to know that I would not trade my new insights for any of the things I lost as painful as it has been. I know that you have been given the trials for your good, to blossom into your best self. I know it sounds cliche but I know it’s true. I’m living it. And you can, too.All the best to you,Angela

    • So true about the money! This story, beautiful and perfect as it is, is an anomoly.

  8. I heard a song by Allen G. Young and I want it. It was about the longest goodbye. Does anyone know where I can get it? Please

  9. Jill Eikenberry met her now-husband when he was already married with a 20 week old baby. As she reported to the news media during her 1980's LA Law days, ( nice facelift, Jill) she "went after" him anyway…She didn't care As she said "I wanted him"..That's all that was important, I guess.

    Can't be bothered with anything these two selfish people are a part of.

  10. Alzheimers can strike at any age and one can never be prepared for the loss of the person even though they may still be cared for. Treasure each moment, difficult as it may be…..

  11. —The choice faced by family members when dementia is diagnosed in a loved one, erasing "life as it was" as an option, is dramatic and often frightening.
    —The solution I chose was to take my mother in to live with me. With the help of psych meds for paranoia/ anxiety and schizophrenia, intensive vitamin therapy to mitigate the side-effects of these meds, and a good community adult day care program for dementia patients, I was able to keep my mother with me for almost four years.
    —Our journey is illuminated in a book of poems I wrote about the experience. Called "NOT YET: A Healing Journey through Alzheimer's Care-Giving," it was just published by sfapress, U. Texas, and is available on Amazon.com under "not yet, Marcia Slatkin."
    —But there was an unexpeced emotional bonus for me during my care-giving. My mother and I had fought a lot in earlier years, and the fact that she "forgot" her formerly judgmental attitudes thanks to the disease process was a gift to me. Our four years together healed ME. All past anger dissolved and was transmuted into love.
    — I suspect that as long as one revises expectations and is open to possibility, life with an Alzheimer's patient can be, although often difficult, a wonderful experience for all concerned.

  12. My brother has taken my Mother for a special tour of the Big Apple. He lives there. Then a long ride through the Maritimes. My Mom has mild altzheimers, (20/30 on the mini mental status test). My Mom went back to Pier 21 where the ship docked after a long ride from Europe in 1954. She told the other members of the tour her story. All she said incorrectly was that she came to Canada with her Grandfather, instead of her Father. We took her to Europe last May on a special tour as well, including her home and her little village. She had so much fun. Travel is so good for her. Between the meds and the positive environment, is there a chance she may not get sick fast? She started slowly, very slowly showing symptoms after open-heart surgery August 2004. She was diagnosed with Altzheimers 2 1/2 years ago. She is now 74.

    • I had a sister who hepeld me, but she was extremely fragile. She was a nurse by trade which would make you think she be use to dealing with such a situation. But seeing her father deteriorate, had her constantly breakdown into tears. So I was very conservative about when I would ask for her help. I didne28099t want to lose the only backup I had. But I will say, at the very end, she really stepped up to the plate. There comes a day when you suddenly go from being a caregiver to a twenty-four hour nurse and I done28099t know if I would have made it through that period without her.

  13. I just wanted to reply to some of the comments about celebrities who have the money to care for their loved one – in many instances this is certainly true – I have interviewed a lot of "stars" who have been or are caregivers and many have more resources than most of us although they still struggle with the emotional roller coaster known as caregiving. In my story here of Jill and Mike, they engaged an elder law attorney to help them navigate both the legal and some of the financial hurdles in caring for Jill's mom. They actually found that it was less expensive to move Jill's mom across the hall into the apartment and even with the private nurses it cost them less than the special memory care facility where Lora was not flourishing as she is now surrounded by family. Mike also told me that while he felt he had planned ahead for his and Jill's future, they have had to use a lot of their own retirement savings to care for Lora putting a hole in their nest egg (they downgraded their living situation in New York to do this). I encourage all caregivers to speak to an elder law attorney when you encounter these situations – there are many ways to ensure your loved one and you do not go bankrupt as you provide the loving gift of care. Wonderful comments from readers above – thanks for sharing!

    • I think this Family Caregiver Conference will be a huge help to peole that struggle to do all the care on their own. To know they are not alone, but to also get ideas on how to cope. I will be tenllig my friends that are family caregivers about this opportunity.

  14. Thank you, for sharring your story.

  15. My mom is no longer at home with us, but we visit her twice a day in her assisted living facility. We could not have cared for her at home for 8 years without the community of our large family. Alzheimer's has taken away her memory, her ability to walk and talk and feed herself. But every once in awhile she looks at me in a certain way and I know she's still there.

    Please read about our family's experience with Alzheimer's at http://www.ourlonggoodbye.wordpress.com .

    Best to all of the families out there dealing with the same.

  16. -My mother passed, in January; no more pain and suffering ! She's in a better place; we miss her so much and want her here (pain-free), even though, she could not speak clear, most of the time/ some times, she didn't know us. We just want to hug/ kiss, and see her gratifying face. It was a devasting, cruel, and painful experience (Alzheimer's) ! We Thank, Jesus Christ, for allowing us, to be able to care for her, the past 10 years. She was 95! Our story is the same, as Jill and Mike's (- the finances) ,but our love/commitment, the same! My daughter/, grandchildren were young,but they help care for her, until her, last day! Our journey was long/overwhelming, at times, but we never gave up! ' EAT, LOVE, PRAY', is all we could do! We knew, no one would love and care for her, the way we did. I became her Voice, her eyes/, her ears! I was determined, she would be with us (family); she earned it! You make sacrafices for those you love! No amount of Money can buy the love/care, needed for a love-one, with [Alzheimer's]; No one will care for them like Family.

  17. wanted to share this video for Alzheimer Awareness, written after placing my mom
    in long term care

  18. That is a great story and very familiar to what I am going through with my mom who has Stage 2 Dementia. She recently moved in with my husband and I to San Antonio, TX from Milwaukee, WI. She lived there all of her 83 years and it is quite an adjustment for her and us. I am her full time caregiver and all my siblings feel this is the best place for her. I feel guilty taking her away from all of her friends but I am finding some social places for dementia patients in our area. I would love to email Jill Eikenbery for advice on how to care for my mother.

  19. One of the most important thing with Alzheimer’s, I believe, is that you always remember who that person is to you. It is so easy, as they progress much further into the disease, to forget the good times in your life and focus on what many would find annoying, endless, sad moments.
    If we just focus on all the milestones we accomplished together with them throughout life before Alzheimer’s, it might remind us that they are still in there, just trapped by this monster of a disease.

  20. It can be helpful to remind ourselves, as caregivers, that the person with dementia will continue to have “feelings” up nearly to the end. This means sadness, happiness, joy, fear, sorrow, shame, embarrassment – every emotion that healthy people have. Going out of our way to help a PWD to feel safe, comfortable, and emotionally secure in every way possible is part of loving care.

    It’s alright, mom, if you forget me; I won’t ever forget you. I may go away for awhile, but I will always return. I will always come back. These comments are reassuring.

    Also, reminding the PWD of the things they did or accomplished in their youth or early adult years can make them feel proud. My mom wanted to know where Ma and Pa were. Knowing that her “time line” was in the age range of about 8 – 16 years old, I would say something like…”Today is berry picking day for your mom and dad and grandma. They are out picking those lucious big Michigan blueberries and grandma will be making pies all afternoon. I would watch my mom’s eyes follow the action of my story as I told her history back to her. She was so pleased at the familiarity of the scenes. She might not have known which of her daughters I was, but she knew I was family because I knew of these things and she felt secure to be with someone whom she could trust. I was so grateful that I had paid attention to her stories when I was a child so I could feed this info. back to her when she needed to hear it.

    My mom is gone now, but these times of telling her “story” back to her always bring sweetness and comfort to me when I am missing her.

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