The Gift of Caring
Marcy Cottrell Houle spent more than a decade caring for her aging parents. Their experiences spanned the spectrum of American eldercare, from caring, insightful doctors and caregivers to those whose indifference nearly cost her parents their lives. Houle’s new book, The Gift of Caring: Saving Our Parents from the Perils of Modern Healthcare, is a compelling memoir of a family dedicated to caring for people they love. The chapters filled with practical advice from geriatrician Elizabeth Eckstrom make the book indispensable for anyone who’s caring for an aging parent or other relative.
Children of aging parents hear some advice so often it can lose its impact, like “ask if your parents’ medications might interact” and “trust your instincts when hiring caregivers.” Houle’s experiences show exactly how challenging it can be to follow that advice when adult children are in the thick of caregiving and overloaded with tasks. But the results of following the advice are clear. When Houle’s mother is placed in the care of a geriatrician, her medication regimen is streamlined and her condition improves. After a disastrous stint with a home caregiver who had set off little alarm bells in Houle and her husband, a new home health aide named Helen creates a safe, warm and beautiful environment for Houle’s mother during her last months.
Eckstrom’s contributions are woven into the book as Houle’s story unfolds, each in its own “What I Wish I’d Known” section, with information on topics most caregivers know something about, like falls prevention, to less-often discussed conditions like delirium—a common, life-threatening and treatable problem that many healthcare providers mistake for dementia. There are sections on dehydration, sleep, exercise, and pain management in dementia patients, and even experienced caregivers are likely to learn something new from each of them.
Houle and Eckstrom also provide practical tools for caregivers. To prevent a misdiagnosis of dementia when a parent develops delirium, the authors tell readers the exact terms to use to describe their parent’s “baseline” health and mental state—and provide detailed instructions on how to create a baseline summary to share with healthcare providers. The book includes a sample health history form and a sample daily care sheet, both intended to give doctors, nurses, and home health aides clear information and help them to provide continuity of care. The Beers list—a surprisingly long roster of medications that are not recommended for use in seniors—is included in the back of the book as well.
There’s much more to The Gift of Caring, including the sweetness of the relationship between Houle’s parents and her children, the frustration and burnout of caregiving work, and the “rollercoaster” path that older people’s health can take from one day to the next. There’s also a call from Eckstrom for more geriatric education for doctors in general and more trained geriatricians in particular, especially as the Baby Boomers grow older. Houle’s story will resonate emotionally with anyone who has cared for a parent or older relative. It also offers a practical guide for readers who are caregiving now and who want to give their loved ones the gift of good care.