Actor Michael Tucker’s new book, Family Meals, shows us there’s no greater feast for the soul than a caring family that comes together when it matters most.
The message is sobering: It takes love, hope and a lot of intestinal fortitude to do the right thing when a parent needs you in the final act of his or her life. The medium is engaging: Family Meals: Coming Together To Care For An Aging Parent, the new book from Michael Tucker, is an honest account of how he and his wife managed—as daughter and son-in-law, as parents of their own grown children and, most difficult of all, as spouses—to navigate the chaos of a parent moving into a quick, somewhat anticipated and yet still hard-to-accept decline.
Accomplished stage actors, Michael and his wife, Jill Eikenberry, became household names when they starred in the groundbreaking ensemble TV show L.A. Law from '86 to '94. An eventual move back to New York and the subsequent purchase of a 350 year old house in Umbria has had them most recently dividing their time between the States and Italy, a lifestyle that becomes more and more enviable to the reader of Family Meals as the book details one fabulous Italian meal after another, temporary reprieves from the family crisis soon to reach a boiling point.
Jill's mom Lora and Lora's second husband Ralph are in an independent living community in Santa Barbara, CA, when Ralph dies and Lora begins having difficulty functioning. Every long-distance caregiver will understand the anguish Jill and Michael grapple with as they try to adjust Lora's living arrangements to address what is the beginning of dementia and face her angry resistance to their help. When Michael and Jill realize that the best thing for Lora could be the worst thing for them—moving her to New York and, as luck would have it, after a disastrous stay at a senior residence, ultimately into an apartment across the hall from theirs—their conflicted decision-making process is laid bare in the book for everyone to see and, thankfully, get inspiration from.
The book is a no holds barred account of the anguish that seniors and their grown children experience every day. Though Michael wrote the book, each chapter was, in essence, vetted by Jill and they are both courageous in their willingness to share their feelings honestly, including the difficulties they had with their respective mothers over the course of their lives. From the thought process behind every crucial decision to the mix of emotions, each step of their journey will provide solace, support and ideas for people going through a similar situation. Readers can also take heart that while their personal lives were in a state of flux, Michael and Jill's often intertwined professional lives reached many new highs—life does go on. Though Michael describes being reluctant to go back on stage, both he and Jill had a huge success playing the parents in the off-Broadway play, Enter Laughing: The Musical, based on comedian Carl Reiner's autobiography (plans are currently to bring the show to Broadway). And their documentary Emile Norman By His Own Design about the renowned sculptor, a project that they had worked on as producers for eight years, was completed and aired on PBS (it will be shown at the New York Historical History on January 31, 2010).
Michael and Jill were just as forthcoming during this interview with parentgiving.com:
What prompted you to write this book?
Michael: We were involved in this difficult situation—I was terrified that this was going to ruin our lives and Jill was very much in denial about her mom's condition. I wrote it as a way to understand it and tell the story.
You have to be honest and admit what's going on. Then you have a chance to get through this together. The biggest problem is when there's a big white elephant in room and no one wants to talk about it'it wasn't so much that Lora was going to be in New York, but the way Jill would be when Lora was in New York.
Decisions about taking care of parents are the hardest most of us will have to face. How did you decide what course to take?
Michael: When you're faced with the decision of taking care of a parent or living your life, you have to do both. Finding the help that you need so that you can live your life is crucial. Many people are financially strapped, but there are ways to do it that don't require vast expenditures. Medicaid does work—it's a lot of paperwork, but it's worth it. We just have to find creative ways, and it's not easy. Co-habitation is a new possibility—find someone you like to live with a parent. You share the aides and all expenses.
In the book you draw the stark comparison between the multi-generational Italian family that still lives together in one house—or at least in the same town—with the American way of life in which everyone is scattered to the winds. Your family benefited from your daughter Alison's moving back to New York from L.A. and into an apartment with your son Max during the transition with Lora. Nutrition is such an important aspect of a healthy lifestyle for a senior—Alison, a professional chef, taking on preparing meals for her grandmother seems integral to the situation working.
Michael: Alison liberated us to be able to go back to Italy. She turned 40 and was at a time in her life when she wanted to make a statement. She saw a need and filled it and said, "This is where I can establish myself in the family."
The honest emotions conveyed in the book are a blessing for other caregivers to read about, but sharing them couldn't have been easy.
Jill: It was hard during the process of the writing. I didn't want to relive everything—feelings that were really hard, the insecurity of making the wrong choices. I thought the same would be true of book tour, but I can't really think of another time that we've had the kind of response we've had from the audience, such compassion—looking at me like they got it. I feel so validated in my struggle to do this right.
What is the impact of having Lora living across the hall instead of across the country?
Jill: I'd still be worried'all the time—if she was in California. But it was so difficult for a while. I couldn't wait to get out of here. Now the guilt feelings are gone. When I'm with her, I'm able to have a loving connection—cuddles and hugs, an experience that I never had as a child. I know by the way she looks at the aides that they are her people. I am not "the one" anymore—I can go, and it is a huge relief. She feels safe and content in the arms of the people who are so gifted at caring for her.
This precipitated my own work with my therapist: All the issues of my entire life were across the hall from me—it was an intense opportunity. What I learned was not just that my mother has changed, but I've changed, too.
My message would be if you can get your mind around the idea of accepting your parent for who they are now instead of who they were, you have the opportunity for a new different relationship that could be very rich.
Editor's note: Michael and Jill will be making more appearances on behalf of the book, including January dates in Florida. For details, go to: www.groveatlantic.com. Michael is also the author of I Never Forget A Meal: An Indulgent Reminiscence and Living In A Foreign Language: A Memoir Of Food, Wine, And Love In Italy.