The Power of Family: A Full Circle Caregiving Story
June 25 2014
by Tom Riley, CEO
Her name is Harriet Lyons, and she was born in 1926. She has six children, 12 grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren and 3 great, great-grandchildren. She's done many remarkable things in her life but few more important than taking her granddaughter Charlene in when Charlene's mom became unable to take care of her. That was 22 years ago. Today, Charlene, age 23, is Ms. Harriett's caregiver. Their uncommon bond is a remarkable testament to the power of family and to life coming full circle.
When Ms. Harriett assumed responsibility for Charlene's care, when her granddaughter was one year old, she was not ready. She was just a few months into grad school at the time. She had worked two and three jobs to provide a college education for her six children and she wanted to pursue her PhD. But Charlene's mom finally succumbed to the loss of Charlene's twin sister to SIDS, an inexplicable disorder that steals infants from their parents with no warning and no trace. The loss is unimaginable and Charlene's mom, who had beaten back her addiction, capitulated, in grief, once again to the scourge of drugs. Ms. Harriett had not signed up to become the parent of her daughter's daughter, but there was Charlene, and family is family, after all. Ms. Harriet said to herself, "Let's see what we can do here," and the doubts ceased and the parenting began. And so did the mission.
Raising Our Children's Children, ROCC for short, was born of a discussion between Ms. Harriet and the Executive Director of the Codman Square Health Center in Boston where Ms. Harriet worked as a clerk. Bill Walczak was in the process of applying for a grant from the Kellogg Foundation and he listened closely to Ms. Harriett's story. This story wasn't just about Ms. Harriett's care of Charlene; it was also a story about the many grandparents who brought children to Codman Square for treatment. Harriet made her case about the needs of these grandparents who were now both matriarch or patriarch and parent at the same time. She talked about their unique challenges and how they were playing a vital role in Boston's neighborhoods. Bill didn't know if Kellogg would appreciate Ms. Harriet's conviction, but he agreed to build it into the application. Funding was approved and ROCC was born.
Ms. Harriet set out to spread the word in the only way she knew how: by having an old-fashioned neighborhood picnic, replete with chicken and dumplings, corn bread, and coffee. "I would cook, and they would share," she explained. Grandparents came and spent time talking among themselves, seeking validation for their choice and support for their needs. As the years passed by, Ms. Harriet and ROCC became part of a movement, one of a patchwork quilt of organizations around the country that were established to bring meaning and comfort to grandparents pressed into service, once again, as parents. She was interviewed by the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and Newsweek. She has a laminated 1998 Boston Globe poster of herself and Charlene, age 6 at the time that she proudly shares with visitors. When asked why she continued to pursue this passion over the years, providing both advocacy and advice to others around the country, her answer was elegantly straightforward:
"I believe in the preservation of families."
Charlene's mom's heart gave out, and she passed away in 1999. Charlene was nine and had been living with her grandmother for eight years. Ms. Harriet reflected on that time. "People shouldn't use the word closure. It's not closure. You just learn how to live." Ever thoughtful, she added, "If you leave yourself open, you find purpose. Who's to say Raising our Children's Children would have gotten started if it wasn't for my daughter?" The years went by and Ms. Harriet's conditions—COPD, CHF and high blood pressure—worsened. She began to need more assistance with mobility, bathing and dressing. Her children were fearful and presented her with options to move to an assisted living facility or skilled nursing home. The only paperwork she filled out was for the apartment where she and Charlene now live. "I just knew Charlene and I needed to be together." She got the call from the housing authority as she was getting into an ambulance. "I'd had a breathing episode and had to go but I wanted to hear the bad news. They said, 'What bad news? We need to know if you want the apartment.' I couldn't believe it. I went to the hospital and then to rehab, and when I came out, Charlene and I moved in here." Charlene nodded, confirming the story. "We talked a little about it. It was either I take care of her or [she'd have to go to] assisted living."
Charlene is a young woman who speaks infrequently. She tends to let her actions speak for her. She has learned how to cook from her grandmother (making cornbread in the family's heirloom iron skillet is her favorite dish) and according to the Visiting Nurse Association, she has great instincts for the work she does. This encouragement has resulted in a desire to finish high school and move on to college to become a nurse. Her grandmother is convinced she will do it. If you spend any time with this young woman, you will be just as convinced. Her advice to other caregivers? "Learn to take time for yourself. Make sure you take care of your mental health." About Caregiver Homes she says, quite simply, "This program has been good for us."
We asked one more question about the challenges of renewing parenting once you've gotten to your late 60's. Ms. Harriet remarked," I haven't changed my parenting method. You are responsible for your own actions. You are in charge of your own life. I told Charlene, 'No one's going to live with your messes and your successes but you.'" When asked what she learned from her grandmother, Charlene responded quickly: "Try to be responsible and be respectful."
So, Ms. Harriet, bring on the homemade chicken and dumplings, the cornbread, coffee, and conversation. And keep reminding us all about the importance of family. It is eminently clear that no one can care for family like family.At the end of our visit, Ms. Harriet glanced toward her granddaughter and remarked, "Who would have thought that this little girl would be taking care of this old lady? She didn't want me to go to a nursing home." Who would have thought, indeed.
Tom Riley is the Chief Executive Officer of Seniorlink and Caregiver Homes.