No More Caregiving from 3,000 Miles Away

May 22nd, 2015 by

Mom and me birthday

I haven’t spent my May 2nd birthday with my mother in many years. I’ve been living in California and only visited her in Mt. Kisco, in New York’s northern Westchester County, in the summers. After Mom turned 98 on her birthday in January and her cognitive abilities deteriorated further, it became very clear that talking to her on the phone and getting reports from my New York-based sister Susan and from Sandy, Mom’s live-in caregiver and majordomo, that I wanted to be close by; that I needed to be close by. There were other good reasons to move back to CT but Mom was the primary one. Celebrating my birthday with her, as I did in the photo above. was a treat.

What I’ve discovered spending time with her is that she’s holding her own in many ways. She still has an amazing vocabulary, still has her sense of humor, still remembers plenty. But she doesn’t remember plenty too. Gone are the anecdotes about my childhood. Gone are the anecdotes about her two husbands, my father and stepfather. Gone are the anecdotes about her friends, most of whom she has outlived.

But just when the sadness of all this creeps into my head, I remind myself to find the silver linings in Mom’s dementia. My book, You’d Better Not Die or I’ll Kill You, was all about finding the silver linings in caring for a loved one with a chronic or progressive illness. I not only wrote about the humorous side of being married to a man with Crohn’s disease, but I encouraged the other caregivers I interviewed (a mother whose son is autistic, a wife whose husband has MS, a son whose two parents had Alzheimer’s, etc.) to find humor in their situations too. Being able to find the positives in even the darkest times – and laughing about them – keeps us sane.

So….what are the silver linings with my mother?

For one thing, she’s no longer estranged from her older sister. As I wrote in The Huffington Post a while back, she forgot she was mad at my aunt after ten years of their not speaking to each other, picked up the phone one day and called her. The conversation was friendly and cheerful as if there’d never been an angry word between them. (My aunt, who’s 100 now, has the same level of dementia as Mom.) They’ve been good buddies ever since. How that’s for an upside of dementia.

For another, every time I come to the house to visit Mom now, it’s a pleasant surprise to her. “Nobody told me you were coming!” she exclaims as soon as I walk in the door, even though I’ve spoken to her only minutes before on the phone to let her know I’m on my way. “This is such a wonderful, wonderful surprise! I can’t get over it!” See? Another upside: my mother is always really, really happy to see me.

But the most personal upside by far has been the fact that my mother’s dementia has changed the way she feels about my writing career. Let me back up and explain.

During a recent phone call, she said, “What’s new, dear?”

“Just taking a break from writing to say hi,” I told her.

“Writing?” she said.

“I’m working on a new novel,” I said.

“You write novels?” She sounded flabbergasted. “Nobody told me that!”

I thought I’d misheard her. A former college professor of Greek and Latin, she values words and had never forgotten that I earned my living through words. It was as if she’d suddenly forgotten who I was.

“Why don’t you walk over to the bookshelves across from your bed,” I suggested trying not to show how shaken I was. “You’ll see a lot of books with my name on them.”

She put down the phone, went to look, and came back on the line. “Oh my goodness! I can’t believe my daughter writes novels! I’m so impressed, dear, and so proud. I bet they’re the best novels ever written.”

Well, now she had done a complete one-eighty. I write romantic comedies – novels that have hit bestseller lists, been translated all over the world, and sold to Hollywood. Most mothers would be thrilled to have a daughter who was a successful author, and Mom was thrilled. She called me her “little celebrity,” woke up early to watch me on the “Today” show, and planted herself in the front row at my bookstore signings where she bought multiple copies and had me autograph them. Naturally, I’d assumed she read the books too. I was wrong. She didn’t read them, certainly not all the way through. And the fact that she didn’t – I discovered this after I’d just given her the galley proofs of a forthcoming novel and minutes later found her combing my library for “something good to read” – was like a stab in the heart.

Mom and I had always shared a very close bond. She was my anchor after my father died when I was six. I followed in her footsteps in college and majored in Greek and Latin. I graduated Summa Cum Laude, as did she. I earned a Phi Beta Kappa key that she wore on her charm bracelet. We were smarty-pants women together, rolling our eyes when grammatically challenged people said, “Between you and I.” So imagine my hurt to learn that my novels weren’t up to her intellectual standards, that my work was the sort of facile, mass entertainment she dismissed. The knowledge of her disapproval created a breach in our otherwise loving relationship that was always lurking beneath the surface, unspoken.

And yet now, during our phone call, Mom had just validated the work I had spent my adult life laboring over. In her cognitively impaired state, she had uttered the magic words at last: “I bet they’re the best books ever written.”

So yes, caring for aging parents with dementia can be a struggle and there are times when you long for your parent the way he or she used to be, but when there are silver linings, we have to grab them with both hands. I grabbed my mother’s compliment about my books and will never let them go.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Books, Humor, Wellness | 3 Comments »

Eating (and More Eating) in My New ‘Hood

May 15th, 2015 by

p1

I didn’t actually order the above menu item at @ the corner (yes, that’s the name of the restaurant, since it’s right on the corner of the charming town of Litchfield). I ordered the “salmon fricassee,” which was an absolutely heavenly entree consisting of a bowl of perfectly cooked salmon surrounded by a simmered sauce of artichoke hearts, olives, white beans and super ripe cherry tomatoes. I loved this place – the food, the ambiance, the fact that they give you a healthy pour of wine – and am grateful to our friends for introducing us to it.

In between all the house stuff (yesterday we had another visit from the electrician and a delivery of our patio furniture – oh, and our lawn got mowed for the first time – and today will bring the guy who, hopefully, will fix our garage door openers that suddenly don’t work), we’ve been revisiting the area’s restaurants we’ve liked and trying new ones. My waistline is expanding accordingly as is my credit card bill. I must stop the madness or I’ll be forced to eat this.

friskiesSunday night brings the finale of “Mad Men” and there’s no way I’ll be at a restaurant during that. I’ll be in my living room, glued to the TV, probably crying, probably second guessing the ending, probably expecting Matthew Weiner, the show’s creative genius, to tell us it’s all a joke and “Mad Men” is coming back for another season after all. Yeah, like that’s happening. Sigh.

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And Look What Else Surprised Us

May 8th, 2015 by

cherry tree

As I’ve said, I’m not a garden person so I don’t know what plants, trees and shrubs will turn out to be until they reveal themselves in the spring. This cherry tree at the front of our property was a happy surprise. It’s so pink and joyful that it makes me smile every time I look at it.

And the house itself is coming along. Yesterday the mason came to repair the brick patio. The day before that the plumber came to repair the outdoor shower. On and on it goes, but we took a break from all the headache-inducing stuff and had our first dinner guest last night. Michael broke in the new BBQ with a terrific chicken with pesto and I made a ton of roasted vegetables (Yukon gold potatoes, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and carrots – very colorful) and a salad with mixed greens, endive, tomatoes, cucumbers and walnuts in a mustard vinaigrette. Yum, if I do say so myself. Our guest brought us a wonderful house present: a large wooden bowl he’d made himself. He’s a very talented woodworker so I’m thrilled to have one of his signed creations and can’t wait to make a big salad in the bowl.

On the book front, my agent and I decided to change the title of my novel before the manuscript went to editors for submissions this week. Instead of going out as Farm Fatales, the spinoff to Princess Charming is now called Three Blonde Mice, which is also the name of the planned series the book will kick off. I just hope editors love it as much as I do. We shall see……….

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I Saw These in My Yard Today!

April 29th, 2015 by

Spring daffodils

Before the daffodils appeared, the property was pretty barren. No, it was sadder than barren. Thanks to the brutal winter in New Preston, CT, there were tree branches, dead leaves and all sorts of debris covering what I hope will be flower beds. Having just moved into this house, I don’t know what will bloom until it actually does.

Today’s excitement after yesterday’s visit from the electrician is the power washing of the front and back brick walkways and patio, the hanging of bathroom towel bars, the paint touch-ups of gouges in the walls caused by the movers and the unpacking of still more boxes. I don’t remember being so immersed in minutia.

But the house is coming together. It doesn’t feel as alien as it did last week. I’m not waking up in the morning with that “Where am I” feeling. I’m learning the house’s creeks and groans. (It’s an old house or, as our building inspector called it, “an experienced house.”) By this weekend, I predict we’ll be hanging artwork, and once that’s done we can turn our attention to the landscaping. The grass needs TLC and there are trees and shrubs to plant. We don’t have any outdoor furniture but we’re going to look at some used Adirondack chairs owned by a client of our contractor (she’s got a big house by the lake and she’s downsizing). And a neighbor invited us over for tea later (she’s British).

What about writing? I admire authors who can write with workmen around. I’m not one of them. I’m not good at chaos. I need order and organization and a fixed schedule. I need the certainty that someone won’t be knocking on the door any minute with a set of tools and an invoice. I need peace – a few hours of it anyway. The good news is I finished Farm Fatales, the spinoff of Princess Charming, before I left California. So once my head clears, I’ll figure out the next book. And the one after that. I will not let this move or this house or this pervasive sense of disorientation sidetrack me….unless, of course, I end up writing about that.

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Settling into My New House

April 22nd, 2015 by

moving-boxes12-pfzgzu

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a post for Mainly Jane. Just too much going on, including the move across the country into our house in New Preston, CT. But after a wild ten days during which the moving truck arrived and we were boxed in by a gazillion boxes and kept saying, “I can’t find the scissors” and “I think that lamp in the living room is missing” and assorted other cries and moans, we’re making progress. We still have boxes – too many – but I can see daylight now. And the rooms are coming together. I even had a manicure yesterday. The nail lady had to use glue on three of my nails because they were split down the middle from opening – you guessed it – boxes, but I felt semi-human.

We picked a good time to come. The snow is gone and though everyone has stories about “the worst winter ever,” we dodged it.

Here’s what we didn’t dodge. A bathroom toilet leaked. The washer and dryer wouldn’t wash or dry. Some of our furniture didn’t fit in their allotted spaces. We spent too much money at Home Depot buying unglamorous things like light bulbs, a medicine cabinet, a hose, a broom, a barbecue.

What I’m dreading the most is our trip to the CT DMV to get our licenses and register our cars. We’ve already been there once, but we didn’t have the right paperwork so we failed and were told to try again. I understand that there’s a lot of red tape with all this, but what I don’t get is why every single person who works at the DMV – the one in Danbury, CT anyway – has to be so grumpy? Not a smile anywhere. Not a “Welcome to Connecticut.” Not even a “Sorry we can’t help you today.” Just one surly person after another. Not a pleasant experience.

On the other hand, our contractor has been a joy to work with. Talk about doing it all. Frank Montelone and his crew at FJM Construction have made the move as painless as possible. No matter how big or small the job, they’ve been willing to take it on or know someone who will. Eric Popilowski is their office manager and we literally couldn’t have functioned without him. He waited at the house for the cable company while we were in California. He waited here for the TV installers from Best Buy. He measured. He answered questions. He reassured. He even said Frank would fix the antique chair that came off the moving truck broken. He’s the answer man.

Do I feel like an East Coaster yet? No. I’m still disoriented. I still operate on Pacific Standard Time, turning on the TV to watch shows that have already aired here. And the other day I walked over to our nearby sandwich shop, a terrific place in New Preston village called Nine Main Bakery & Deli. I was waiting at the counter for my sandwiches when a woman showed up to place her order. She started talking to me about her son, the doctor, and how proud she was of him. “I’m even more proud of him than I am of my screenwriter son-in-law.” Well, since I’m still in a California state of mind, I said, “Has the screenwriter son-in-law had any movies produced?” She laughed and said, “Of course! His name is Kevin Barnett and he writes for the Farrelly brothers. You know. ‘Dumb and Dumber’ and ‘The Heartbreak Kid’ and ‘Hall Pass.'” She gave me his phone number and said, “Call him. Maybe he’ll turn one of your books into a movie.” The moral of the story is that I came all the way across the country, but Hollywood is never far away. It always beckons.

Meanwhile, Michael and I went out to one of our favorite haunts for dinner last night, the White Horse Tavern here in New Preston. It’s an English pub, so Michael indulged himself with Shepherd’s pie. He was in heaven.

White Horse

Note all those mashed potatoes on top. They were a thing of beauty.

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My book is “eye candy!”

February 2nd, 2015 by

EyeCandy_FEB1_youdbetternotdie

Chronicle Books, publisher of my caregiver survival guide, You’d Better Not Die or I’ll Kill You, just gave me the heads up that the book has been selected for their special, month-long “Eye Candy” ebook sale! What does that mean? Special savings, that’s what! For the entire month of February, caregivers and the people who care about them, will be able to go to any ebook retailer and purchase the ebook edition at a substantial savings. I’m talking about a book that’s been priced as high as $14.99 selling for $2.99 and less in February – no small deal, right?

I came up with the idea for You’d Better Not Die after spending 20 years as the caregiver to my husband Michael, who has Crohn’s disease and who sent us both on a journey that involved multiple hospitalizations and surgeries and home health nurses and many, many doctors. I wanted to write about my experience with a humorous spin – not as a Debbie Downer, in other words, but as someone who could stare the dark days in the face and still find silver linings in them. I also sought out caregivers with stories about caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s, a husband with M.S., a daughter with anorexia, a son with autism and much more. And finally I went to the experts – lots of them: therapists (how do we cope when we’re so stressed we can’t see straight?), a dietician (what the heck do we eat that’s healthy when we’re stuck with hospital cafeterias?),  fitness coaches (how are we supposed to exercise when we’re sitting in a hospital room all day?), a bestselling cookbook author (who has time to cook a nutritious meal with flavor?), meditation teachers (how do we quiet the mind when it’s racing to check off all the items on our “To Do” list?), nurses (how should we deal with the cranky ones who won’t answer our questions?), and much more.

Since the book was published, my perspective as a caregiver has broadened. I did write about my mother’s increasing dementia in You’d Better Not Die, but I have a whole new appreciation for what caring for an elderly parent is all about. Mom recently turned 98 (her older sister just turned 100, so longevity runs on that side of the family) and while still very sharp at times, she’s more and more dependent on her full-time caregiver to fill in the blanks. She’s especially disoriented in the late afternoons and evenings when the infamous “sundowners” set in, and her confusion is a source of great frustration to her. Over the past few years I’ve been her long-distance caregiver since I’ve lived in California and she’s in New York, but I’m moving back east this spring and one of the main reasons is to be there for and with her in whatever ways she needs me – from interacting with her doctors to help with paying her bills to spending time with her and trying to brighten her days. She lives at home – at one point she wanted to move to an assisted living community and then changed her mind – and is isolated to a certain degree, and I hope my presence will mitigate that.

Meanwhile, I’m very heartened by the wonderful reader responses to You’d Better Not Die, along with the critics’ reviews. I write romantic comedies for the most part, so a caregiver book was new territory for me. But take a look at some of the words of praise on Goodreads. Wow.

“Our sweet daughter gave me this book for Christmas – and I took my time reading and thinking about every chapter. ‘A family caregiver is caring for somebody who has something that can’t be fixed-i.e., it doesn’t have a cure at this point in time. That requires a totally different medical approach.’ (page 284) This definition of a caregiver includes most of my family and friends…who don’t really see themselves as caregivers, but who, like me, struggle with all of the issues associated with this role as we care for a parent, spouse, child, or friend. This book is filled with simple, useful, needed advice based on the experiences of Jane, and her friends, family, and health care professionals that are helping her make sense of this complicated issue. Their insights and comments have helped me change how I see my own role as a caregiver and how I see and serve others filling this critical role.”

“I’ve been reading Jane Heller’s You’d Better Not Die or I’ll Kill You, and it’s exceptional. Two hours later (with lots of laughs and tears), I finished it from cover to cover. Honestly, after doing home health with a 87 year old , with her declining health and increasing dementia, I believe this book will be a godsend to so many. It’s unique in its scope – anecdotal, voices from a cadre of health care professionals as well as peeps like us, and very personal. I’ve experienced all of it – working nurses, asking questions, keeping records, doing follow-ups, arranging ambulances and rehab and homecare and wading through the Medicare stuff….and the author has put ALL OF IT down to help and to use….and ultimately, to speak of love and how it is tested….well, nicely done.”

“I cried at many points in this book because I recognized so much of my own experiences in the stories in this book. Lots of good advice, even though as a caregiver, you’re probably just too exhausted, frustrated, busy to take it. Excellent book that should offer solace to those of us who often feel alone in their challenges.”

I love hearing from readers and talking to other caregivers, so feel free to send me an email and let me know how you’re doing on your caregiving journey. If you haven’t read the book or you have a friend or family member for whom you’d like to buy it, February is the month. For the bookseller links to the Eye Candy Special Savings Promo, go to my home page on this site.

Take care!

 

 

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Movie Night: “Selma”

January 13th, 2015 by

selma-movie-poster

We braved the rain the other night (yes, it actually rained in Santa Barbara – for two days, in fact – and hopefully the percip helped the drought conditions) and went to the Arlington Theater to see “Selma.” The night before on his MSNBC show, Lawrence O’Donnell had gone into such a state of rhapsody over the movie that, in addition to many other glowing reviews as well as the timeliness of the subject and my own interest in the civil rights movement, I was eager to see “Selma” – particularly on the eve of the Golden Globes awards.

The good news: David Oyelowo, yet another Brit playing an American icon (lots of them these days), gets Martin Luther King Jr.’s vocal cadences amazingly well. The bad news: I wish there’d been more fiery speeches to show off his talent. “Selma” is a more ruminative movie than one that gets you up on your feet shouting “Amen.” It shows King in quiet, contemplative moments – too many of them for me. We see him strategizing with his close group of advisers. We see him trying to make his point with LBJ (Tim Wilkinson, another Brit playing a legendary American). We see him navigating strained marital waters with his wife Coretta. And all of these contemplative moments move at a very slow pace, many in darkly lit spaces.

It’s when “Selma” opened up and showed us the people of Selma and the consequences of their fight for their right to vote that the movie came alive for me. Their courage, their persistence even in the face of formidable opposition, even in the face of unyielding Alabama Governor George Wallace (another Brit, Tim Roth), was inspirational and riveting. But as for King himself? Let’s put it this way. As I was coming out of the ladies’ room after the movie, I heard several women echo my own thought, which was: “How can a story about such a magnetic man make him seem so un-magnetic?” The film was emotionally flat in places where it needed to soar. I was disappointed.

 

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Movie Day: “Inherent Vice”

December 21st, 2014 by

Inherent Vice poster
Well, that was an interesting – or should I say “groovy” – screening at Cinema Society today. I’m a huge fan of Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous movies (“There Will Be Blood, “The Master”) and, while I’ve never been equally enthusiastic about the novels of Thomas Pynchon, I loved the idea of an LA noir tale with an A+ cast (Joaquin Phoenix, Owen Wilson, Benecio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short, Eric Roberts). What could be bad?

The length of “Inherent Vice,” for one thing. Must I keep ranting about films that take over two-and-a-half hours to tell a story? Apparently so. Scenes could have been tightened up and they weren’t. On the other hand, the top critics who’ve put the movie on their Best of 2014 list praised Anderson’s ability to condense Pynchon’s novel, so what do I know?

Set in 1970, the movie begins as private eye Doc Sportello, a stoner in Santa Monica who hasn’t fully grasped that the sixties have come to an end post-Manson family, gets a visit from his ex-girlfriend who’s worried about her current boyfriend who’s gone missing. The boyfriend is a billionaire real estate developer whose wife and her stud have plotted to commit him to a looney bin and steal his money. Doc is intrigued and investigates. One trail of clues leads to another and another, and along the way we meet a recovering heroin addict-sax player (Wilson), a drug-dealing, sex-crazed dentist (Short), an LAPD detective with TV aspirations (Brolin) and many more. It’s a wild, psychedelic ride and I alternated between liking the movie and being bored by it. It didn’t help that Santa Barbara’s historic Riviera Theatre has terrible acoustics and much of the dialogue was hard to decipher.

Phoenix is wonderful as always, but Brolin stole the movie for me. He’s hilarious, truly. The movie looks great too; if Anderson doesn’t know how to shoot a film set in LA, no one does. Michael loved “Inherent Vice” and said if it hadn’t been so long it would have been his Best Film of the year. He certainly laughed a lot. Maybe he was stoned?

 

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Movie Day: “Cake”

December 14th, 2014 by

Cake

What good timing by our Cinema Society! Jennifer Aniston snagged both SAG and Golden Globe nominations for Best Actress this week and today was our screening with Aniston in attendance for the Q&A afterwards. Now that I’ve seen the film and her performance, I can say unequivocally that her recognition is well deserved. She’s superb and will likely get an Oscar nom as well.

She plays Claire, a woman in LA who’s visibly scarred and in both physical and emotional pain. (She was in a terrible car accident.) She pops Percocet and Oxycontin like candy, gets kicked out of her support group for her bitchy behavior, has pushed away her husband and alienates just about everybody except her caregiver, Silvana, an immigrant from Mexico. She thinks about killing herself constantly and even gives suicide a couple of tries. Needless to say, this isn’t an easy movie to watch and it’s a huge departure for the normally comic Aniston.

How she fights her way back to the land of the living and functioning, how she copes with the losses she’s suffered, how she kicks her addiction are all answered in satisfying storytelling. Actually, the storytelling in itself is a great story. At the Q&A, we learned that the script came from a 49-year-old man who had entered it in a screenwriting contest. The director read it, loved it, and the rest is history.

I have nothing but praise for “Cake” – not a single critique. It was well made on every level and I applaud Aniston for taking a leap and going out of her comfort zone. She was charming at the Q&A too, very chatty with the audience and appreciative that we’d packed the theater on a Sunday morning.

Go see this movie when it comes out. You will be moved.

 

 

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Movie Day: “Mommy”

December 13th, 2014 by

Mommy posterCanada’s entry into the foreign film category for the Oscars this year, “Mommy” won the prestigious Palme d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival last May and its 27-year-old director – yes, Xavier Dolan is practically a kid! – won the directorial prize. At today’s Cinema Society I could see why the film has been garnering raves. It’s riveting. Timely too. And beautifully acted by Anne Dorval.

A French language film, it’s the story of Diane, a widowed single mother who’s living day to day cleaning houses, doing odd jobs, desperately trying to make ends meet even as she’s struggling to care for her son, who’s a handful to say the least. He’s been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and becomes violent – scarily so – with seemingly little provocation. We meet mother and son as she’s picking him up from yet another juvenile facility from which he’s been kicked out, this time for setting the cafeteria on fire and injuring another boy.

Diane wants to keep him at home and does she ever try. She gets help from a neighbor with psychological problems of her own, but in the end……Well, I won’t spoil the end. But the movie begins by telling us that Canada has passed a healthcare law stating that a parent can commit a child without his or her consent.

As I said, the acting is truly superb. Dorval is a force of nature as Diane, who drinks and smokes too much, yells and screams and creates drama even without her unstable son. The cinematography is interesting too as director Dolan presents some of the film in square boxes, as when the characters are feeling hemmed in and troubled, and in wide screen when they’re liberated.

The story is a brave one – how many other films would dare to take on this subject? – and made me think of young men like Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza and his mother. What do you do with a son like that? A thorny issue indeed and a very good film.

 

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