How Caregiving Can Heal a Relationship

Lori Grinker, a photojournalist and professor at New York University’s Arthur L Carter Journalism Institute, was never close to her mother, Audrey. Their relationship had been strained when Lori’s parents got divorced and when her brother died from AIDS. It seemed like nothing would bring them together. That is, until Audrey was diagnosed with cancer and Alzheimer’s. During the last year of Audrey’s life, Lori and her mother found a closeness they’d never known before.

In 2015, Audrey mixed up her prescription medicines and nearly died. That same year, she broke her foot while trying to move a huge TV cabinet on her own. Her personality changed a lot too, as she would forget key details and say incredibly hurtful things to her daughter, causing even more of a rift in their already strained relationship. That same year, a neurologist diagnosed Audrey with a form of early onset Alzheimer’s.

Despite their Strained Relationship, Lori Becomes a Caregiver for her Mother

Five years later, during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lori went down to Florida to move her mother into assisted living. Instead, due to the pandemic, Lori wound up taking care of her mother in Audrey’s one-bedroom apartment, where she slept in the bed next to her. She helped her mother every day as her Alzheimer’s progressed and she went through treatment for cancer.

While her mother’s health continued to deteriorate, Lori’s relationship with Audrey actually began to mend. One of the things that brought them closer was Lori’s photography of their journey together and photographing items in Audrey’s house that have meaning, bringing back shared memories and triggering deep conversations. Thrown into a situation where they spent more time together than ever due to the pandemic and caregiving, Lori and her mom were able to “heal the rifts of a lifetime,” she says. According to Lori, “(w)e said I love you for the first time, and she thanked me for helping her, which was a huge thing for her to say. So, you know, we really started to melt away all that stuff from so many years. And it was this kind of beautiful, magical, but very difficult time.”

Through photography, Lori reflects on the experience of her changing relationship with her mother. Lori’s project about this time in their lives, titled “All the Little Things,” won the Bob and Diane Fund Grant in 2022, which supports visual stories focused on Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Lori describes how she took the pictures with her mother’s permission and how she was aware of what Lori was doing, even with her dementia. According to Lori, “I think a few photographs are difficult to look at for sure. Others are sad, but some are funny and some show human resilience.”

Lori shared some of what she learned from her experience with NPR. These are some of the highlights:

Don’t take things personally: As Lori watched her mother stop eating and slowly starve, she had to learn, or relearn, how to talk to her, how to react, how not to take it personally. According to Lori, “(a)mazingly, this shook [us] from our decades-old patterns and allowed us to finally be together and share.” She started talking more with her mother and developed empathy by seeing so closely what she was going through.

Making art is a natural process when you’re dealing with something: As Audrey and Lori started talking about items in the home and things that she had around her apartment, Lori would photograph them. According to Lori, “I don’t know if it was just a response to the confusion and the grief – I guess I had this idea to make 20 pictures, and I ended up making over 100.” One of the objects was a pizza pan that Audrey used all the time during Lori’s childhood to heat up food in the oven. The pan was part of a kit from the first mass-produced pizza pie mix in a box in the United States, circa 1950’s, and brought back shared memories for Audrey and Lori. According to Lori, “(i)t was really great to photograph certain things and then show them to her and talk about them and it brought back all these memories. And it really helped build our relationship back.” Click here for a recent article series we wrote about another type of art therapy used for helping persons with dementia.

Talk about things to get them out in the open: Lori describes how Audrey would get really sick at night and how Lori would have to clean the bed. Her mother felt really bad, and they would talk about it. They would talk about things that didn’t work in their relationship. Lori is thankful that she had that time and that closure with her mother. According to Lori, “I don’t think there’s any experience that’s much deeper than helping somebody go through the end of their life except for maybe helping them come into the world, which, you know, she didn’t do very well. So, in a way, we were lucky that we had that time.”

Lori hopes that sharing her story and her photography will help others in similar situations better connect with their loved ones if they also were in strained relationships. According to Lori, “I think projects like this help others know they are not alone. They can help us recognize things we can’t quite pinpoint … and in some cases help us find some closure.”

You can view Lori’s photographs here.

Caregiving for a Parent in a Strained Relationship

If your parent didn’t put much effort into your care growing up or came up short when you needed them, it might feel tempting to do the same. Although it’s true that you can’t change the past, as Lori Grinker discovered, you can create a better future by communicating with each other and acting in your parent’s best interest when they need you most.

If you are in this situation yourself, it is a good idea to use support teams and resources to stay empowered.

Here are some suggestions that may be helpful:

Get counseling if you need it: If you need counseling to work through your relationship with your parent and have been putting it off, maybe now is the time. Both anger and guilt can be difficult to overcome, and they tend to be at the root of many relationships.

Turn to the community for information and referrals: Libraries, senior centers, faith communities, and your local Area Agency on Aging are just a few of the community resources that can help.

Delegate tasks to help you maintain boundaries: You don’t have to do everything. There are professionals out there who can be paid to assist. Other family members and friends might also be willing to step up. When resources are available, there’s no shame in turning a task over to someone else.

Look into senior services and programs: Adult day programs, meal delivery services, home care, and transportation assistance can all help your parent continue to live well in the community. There are also support programs for caregivers, such as respite services and coaching programs designed to help caregivers with essential care planning.

Check out disease-specific websites and organizations: Websites such as the Alzheimer’s Association or Parkinson’s Foundation can help you learn more about your parent’s specific condition and connect with resources tailored to their disease or chronic illness.

Caregiving for a parent if you have/had a strained relation can be difficult, but it isn’t impossible and can sometimes even help repair your relationship and bring closure, as it did for Audrey and Lori Grinker. For more details on the subject and some helpful book suggestions, please read my article, “Is it a Burden—Caregiving for Parents When Your Relationship is Strained.”

Planning for a Parent Who Has Dementia

Persons with dementia and their families face special legal and financial needs. At the Farr Law Firm, we are dedicated to easing the financial and emotional burden on adults with dementia and their children. We help protect and preserve family assets while maintaining your parent’s comfort, dignity, and quality of life by ensuring eligibility for critical government benefits. If your parent has been diagnosed with dementia, please call us as soon as possible to make an appointment for a consultation:

Elder Law Attorney Fairfax: 703-691-1888
Elder Law Attorney Fredericksburg: 540-479-1435
Elder Law Attorney Rockville: 301-519-8041
Elder Law Attorney DC: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.