The topic could not be more emotionally fraught. Karen Springen, a correspondent of ours based in Chicago, was interviewing Debi Clancy, 49, for this week's cover story. The subject: the challenges Clancy faces in taking care of her 82-year-old mother, who suffers from Alzheimer's. "I'm very upset with myself most of the time," Clancy said. "I'm mad because I can't fix it. Even as a child, I had to fix everything and make it better. This is the first time in my life I can't make it better." Clancy started to cry. Then Karen started to cry, too.
Tears seem an entirely understandable response to the complexities and role reversals that Clancy and millions of other Americans are confronting as the number of Alzheimer's cases inexorably rises. Many readers are, I think, generally inured to what we sometimes call "coming crisis" stories. There is always something bad lurking just ahead, whether it is the cost of entitlements or a growing health problem. Such issues are important, and we take pride in covering them in order to draw attention to what must be done, but there is a tendency toward hyperbole in the media and political cultures that can be counterproductive. (If everything is a coming crisis, then it is hard to focus on the ones that really require the most attention.)
On the question of Alzheimer's and caregiving, however, the crisis is not only coming, it is here. Five million Americans currently suffer from the disease, and 70 percent of them live at home. The number of Alzheimer's cases could rise to 16 million in the next four decades. Two bills are pending in Congress: one to double the amount of money spent annually on Alzheimer's research from $642.7 million to $1.3 billion, the other to provide tax credits for caregivers, a critical element for those who lack the necessary means to manage taking care of their parents. The disease is diabolical, stealing what makes you you, and the toll on the children who suddenly find themselves playing a parental role to the men and women who raised them is financially daunting and emotionally incalculable.
Our team reported and wrote the package, which was edited by David Noonan, through the prism of their personal experiences. With her sisters, Barbara Kantrowitz, Karen's coauthor, took care of her mother, who died in March 2005 at the age of 88. Joan Raymond, who wrote our caregivers' guide and a piece on the importance of having what is called "the conversation" about caregiving with your parents, remembers how much seemingly simple things mattered when it came to pre-paring for the end of her mother's life. "At my request, she kept all of her personal papers (will, living will, house deed, cemetery info, etc.) in an old-fashioned brown accordion legal folder that she stored in her desk so I would know where everything was," Joan says. "On the front of the folder she wrote, 'Mom is pushing up daisies. Here is all my important stuff. I love you, honey'."
The mother and son pictured on our cover capture the challenges and complications that many of us are confronting, or may ultimately have to. As Barbara and Karen write, Tim Kidwell, 56, is caring for his mother, Grace, who is 78 and whose husband, John, has leukemia. Creative director at an ad agency in St. Louis, Tim found the demands of the task so consuming that he quit his job and became a freelancer. It is not easy—far from it—and it has reshaped his life. His view, though, is a heartening and instructive one. "You do," he says, "what you feel is most important."