Caring Today

When Dana Reeve, arguably America's most famous caregiver, died recently, the obits mentioned she'd given up an acting and singing career to devote herself to her husband, paralyzed movie star Christopher Reeve (now deceased too, of course).

Dana, described as a model of graceful serenity in her caregiving role, often noted that she had no bitterness about her sacrifice.

As profiled in the magazine Caring Today, then-19-year-old Bridget Bennett also gave up her acting dreams to become a caregiver for her mother, Helene, a breast cancer victim. And as far as I'm concerned, Bridget made an even bigger sacrifice. Helene told Bridget it was time for her to quit college, where she was a theater and journalism major, and go into the family business--home and car insurance. "It's not something I had dreamed of doing," Bridget is quoted as saying, "but I enjoy working with the people." As with all accounts of Dana Reeve, Bridget's story focuses on the positive: "My mother's illness has made me more spiritual" and inspired her to lose 80 pounds, Bridget says.

I'm sure if I were a caregiver, I'd be heartened by this story, but also a little pissed off at getting only the superficial side. Where is the anger and ambivalence that Bridget must have felt, having to stop the fun of acting classes to attend "the Professional Insurance Agent school"?

While Caring Today does a competent job of fulfilling the mission in its tagline--providing "practical advice for the family caregiver"--digging a little deeper would serve its readers well and spice up a sometimes-bland mix of articles, like a boring food column and the front-of-the-book medical items, which are way too long and read like press releases.

The longer medical features are better. A three-part diabetes section targets readers smartly, focusing on the subtle surface symptoms of the disease in teeth, skin and feet that caregivers need to watch for. "Understanding Arthritis" puts the condition in context as the nation's leading cause of disability, discussing its various permutations and treatments simply enough so that even a medical idiot (me, for instance) could understand.

"Gentle Travel Adventures" helpfully discusses the accessibility of three U.S. cities, but is marred by its generic travel brochure style, complete with the worst fault of the genre, the baffling mention of a supposedly world-famous sight: Chattanooga's Ross's Landing, "where the infamous Trail of Tears began"--what trail? What tears? The blurb with the story asks a good question that never gets answered: "If your traveling companion has a physical disability, you face a unique challenge. So, how do you get the real break you need?" A first-person approach here, maybe describing how a caregiver went on a trip and balanced her needs with those of her charge, would have livened things up considerably.

A story about a New Hampshire-based breast cancer support group--"Oh, Those Breast Friends!"--thankfully livens its inspirational tone with humor, like the mention of The Young and The Breastless, a rock band one of the support group's members wanted to form.

Though I'm not usually big on reader-written stories, the best piece in this issue is one penned by a reader, Ami S., about the dog that takes care of Ami's Alzheimer's-stricken mother. Any tendency toward the maudlin is counterbalanced by Ami's clear-eyed voice and detailed focus on a dog who does everything short of putting on a nurse's uniform and asking, "How are we feeling today?" Madison, the dog, "wears a backpack containing a change of clothes, medicine, money, ID and other things my mother needs but no longer can keep track of, recognize or carry." Ami even claims that Madison "can hand a clerk a credit card (but won't sign for the purchase)."

Since it's the real-life stories that shine, it's particularly disturbing that Caring Today's cover photos are actually posed model shots. In place of the March/April phony cover, I wish the mag's editors had chosen a great inside photo of Bridget, the young caregiver, with her mother, Helene: Helen is wearing that chemo-bald look, which makes the photo more genuine still.

If Caring Today's editors want to be heartwarming, they should focus more on the real heart of the mag's topic, and forget the generic photos and text.

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