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Reading up on elder care

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, July 11, 2010; G01

WHEN THE TIME COMES

Families With Aging Parents Share Their Struggles And Solutions

By Paula Span, Springboard Press

288 pp., $23.99

The ladies like him. He's got jokes, so the staff likes him, too.

Despite his reservations, my 81-year-old father-in-law is doing well at the assisted-living facility he moved into while my family took a vacation. I was hoping he would want to stay. But with a week left in his respite-care contract, it's unclear whether he will make Woodward Estates, an Emeritus Senior Living facility, his new home.

It's a lovely place. And with three children, the heavy work and travel schedule my husband and I maintain and the amount of assistance with daily living activities that my father-in-law needs, it's the best arrangement for him. But he continues to balk at the cost, which he could afford. His indecision means we all are back to figuring out where he will live.

On the floor of my home office is a stack of books about caring for a senior. For the next few months, I'll select a few to review for the Color of Money Book Club. This month I'm recommending "When the Time Comes" by former Washington Post staff writer Paula Span (Springboard Press, $23.99) and "Caring for Your Parents, The Complete Family Guide: Practical Advice You Can Trust From the Experts at AARP" (Sterling, $12.95) written by Hugh Delehanty and Elinor Ginzler. Delehanty is senior vice president and editor-in-chief of AARP Publications. Ginzler is AARP's senior vice president of livable communities and an expert on long-term care. If you're ordering the AARP book, be sure you get the second edition, which has a slightly different title than the earlier version.

Span's book, published last year, isn't a how-to manual as much as it's a how-to-get-through-the-years of caring for an elderly relative. Span writes that her work is a "support group in print." The book tells the stories of about a dozen families faced with becoming caregivers.

"We talk sometimes about a role reversal, the children become the parents, but it's a flawed analogy," Span writes. "Our elders are not children; they don't have to do what we think best. There's no T-shirt that proclaims, 'Because I'm the Daughter, That's Why.' And this passage, unlike child-rearing, will not result in eventual independence."

"When the Time Comes" is a beautifully written, heartfelt narrative filled with facts and advice from experts but also moving stories of care-giving. Span stretches the stories over five chapters that cover the living choices for the elderly -- home care, shared household, assisted living, nursing homes and hospice.

Span's experiences began when her mother was diagnosed with cancer and needed hospice care. Her 87-year-old father is still living independently in his own apartment in southern New Jersey, although Span has readied herself for a time when her father may need assistance.

Span profiles families struggling with the stress of care-giving and those who are handling the situation just fine and see the rewards in shouldering the responsibility of helping care for an older relative.

"I hope I can be as steadfast and loving as the people I've written about, when the time comes," she writes.

What is so refreshing about Span's book is the balance.

"Lots of adult children cope with the demands quite well," she says. "But when it's hard, it's really hard."

"When the Time Comes" offers the right mix of information and emotional support, even if some of the stories might induce tears.

If you're looking for an easy-to-read, practical guide to care-giving, AARP's "Caring for Your Parents" is a good choice. The book is also peppered with personal stories, but its main mission is to provide the basic information you need to find the right care for your parents. This is a how-to manual with heart.

AARP's guide begins logically, with the need to have conversations with your parents about their long-term care options. From there you'll find practical tips and checklists to help you understand various aspects of care-giving. There is a useful appendix that includes a list of key documents you'll need and a worksheet to help facilitate a family meeting about caring for your parents.

Either one of these books will make your care-giving a little easier. I'll be hosting a live online chat about this month's picks at noon Eastern on July 22 at http://washingtonpost.com/discussions. Span and Ginzler will join me to take your questions.

Every month, I also randomly select readers who will receive a copy of the featured book, donated by the publisher. For a chance to win a copy of one of the books selected this month, e-mail colorofmoney@washpost.com with your name and address.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

Comments and questions are welcome, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses are not always possible. Please note that comments or questions might be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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