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Gail Sheehy Explores Illness, Death in New Book

By Jim Meyers   |   Saturday, 03 Jul 2010 07:36 PM

Best-selling author and award-winning journalist Gail Sheehy has written a new book that provides a step-by-step guide for caring for a loved one with a chronic or terminal illness.

In an exclusive Newsmax interview, she says her book makes the point that people needn’t regard a life-threatening illness as a death sentence, and charges that America has in general failed to deal with end-of-life issues.

Sheehy has written 16 books, including “Passages,” which remained on the New York Times best-seller list for more than three years after its 1976 publication and was named in a Library of Congress survey as one of the 10 most influential books of our time.

She has also written a biography of Hillary Clinton, “Hillary’s Choice,” and won the Washington Journalism Review Award for Best Magazine Writer in America for her in-depth portraits of national and world leaders.

Story continues below video.

Her new book is “Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence,” which chronicles her 17 years supporting her husband, legendary magazine publisher Clay Felker, as he battled recurrent cancer, and extends a lifeline to all caregivers of stricken loved ones.

Editor's Note: To buy Gail Sheehy's new book on caregiving, Click Here Now.

Discussing the “passage” to caregiving, she tells Newsmax: “Actually we go through more passages after age 50 in what I call our second adulthood than we do in our first adulthood. And one of them that we’re usually not prepared for, not expecting, not trained for, is the passage to caregiving.

“Suddenly you get the call in the middle of a busy life, when you’re pursuing your passion and your children are on their way and you think, wow, I have all this free time, and suddenly you get the call. It’s a call from a doctor or your spouse or your mom or it’s a call about a fall dad’s had, maybe he’s had a stroke.

“And suddenly you’re thrown into a role which people don’t identify with. It’s family caregiver. And usually it goes on for at least five years, with the needs escalating.

“So I had to write this book to say you don’t have to give up your own life. You can’t. Because if you do you’ll probably get sick yourself and then there won’t be anybody to do the caregiving.”

Sheehy says there are several “turnings” — stages in dealing with ailing loved ones. They include finding a “medical quarterback” to supervise care, making financial arrangements, and getting advice on dealing with the complexities of our healthcare system, which “is broken in so many places,” according to Sheehy.

Another stage involves “preparing a new path for yourself,” returning to activities you love and friends you may have lost contact with.

The final stage is “the long goodbye.”

“That is the biggest problem for most people, because it may last for years or even decades, because every illness now, even cancer, comes and goes as it did with my husband four times over 17 years,” Sheehy explains.

“People live with Alzheimer’s for 20 years, and it has stages. You have to be prepared for this maybe being a long-term thing.

“Don’t take life-threatening illness as a death sentence. It isn’t today for the reason people do live for decades with illnesses that used to be death sentences.”

It’s important to have a family meeting to create “a circle of care” when a loved one is stricken, Sheehy advises.

“Call a family meeting, get everybody who’s involved in the family together, and say, what can we do to bring mom back to life? She’s lost her husband. She’s lost her eyesight. She can’t drive anymore. How can we create a circle of care so that one or another of us is contacting her, seeing her every day so she feels loved and cared for?”

In Sheehy’s book, she counsels that it’s not necessary to accept the first medical diagnosis as final.

“You need to get two or three consults,” she says.

“Then you need to pick one of those doctors to be your medical quarterback and help you sort through the care options and help you assemble the care team.”

As for dealing with a “terminal illness,” Sheehy says: “Terminal illness may not mean that this is going to happen in the next year or even 10 years or 15 years. I think what you do is you start investigating. You might want to call a researcher to look up that illness worldwide and see what are the new treatments.

“If you get a care manager or a researcher, they’ll be able to give you a lot of alternatives. And exhaust those alternatives before you take the most radical treatment.”

Asked if there are better ways the U.S. can deal with end-of-life issues, Sheehy responds:

“We are not even dealing with end-of-life care issues. We have acute care in hospitals and emergency rooms. That’s fine with serious illness. We have hospices for end-of-life care. We don’t have anything for the in-between stage that middle class people can afford. Caring for somebody at home and providing for an outside home care aide is enormously expensive.”

She adds that one tactic might be “opening immigration to bringing in more people who are skilled in nursing. We have a nursing crisis and we need to have people who can do home care who are not wildly expensive, but who can actually monitor people who have health problems so that they don’t have to go to the emergency room or undergo a whole lot of tests that are much more expensive for the taxpayers.”

Editor's Note: To buy Gail Sheehy's new book on caregiving, Click Here Now.

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