“Boomerang” is the term that Gail Sheehy uses to describe a phase in the caregiving process where, once you’ve figured out how to manage the new reality of caring for a loved one, things change again. That’s what happened to the Heaths.

For two years, Sheehy says, “Dad had been happy to take care of mom after she fell and became wheelchair bound. But then he fell and began showing signs of cognitive decline, so now they both needed help.”

With a demanding work schedule, the Heaths’ son David said he couldn’t possibly be the caregiver. “So it fell to Bonnie, the daughter-in-law,” says Sheehy. “But she worked as substitute teacher, and they had two teenagers at home. They were the classic sandwich-generation family.”

Within nine months, Bonnie had reached the stage of ‘I can’t do this anymore’—a quick turnaround, says Sheehy, as “most caregivers don’t get there for two or three years. They don’t allow themselves to get there.” Fortunately, the Heaths were connected to a progressive continuing-care community, where, says Sheehy, “they have people come in for a full geriatric assessment before they need to go to the nursing home. Once they did that, the geriatrician said, ‘You have to call a family meeting, and the professionals will give everybody in the family, including the two parents, the same information at the same time.’”

The staff assessment didn’t paint a pretty picture. “’Mom hasn’t been out of the house for nine months except when Bonnie takes her, and she’s fallen into depression. Dad has moderate-to-severe cognitive impairment,’” the family was told. “Once everybody heard that,” says Sheehy, “and the parents heard it and couldn’t deny their situation anymore, then everybody became activated.”

As Sheehy sees it, “the lesson of the Heath family is: When you have a family meeting with the person or people who are sick, be sure there’s a neutral moderator, a health professional, who lets everyone know what the situation is at the same time. Nobody can sit on the fence or argue, or tell you that you don’t know what you’re doing, which often happens with sisters and brothers.”

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