Catherine Lelong is a brand and marketing strategy consultant involved with a handful of Bay Area-based nonprofits. She is a founding member of the Latino Giving Circle San Francisco, at the Latino Community Foundation; chairs the board at the What If? Foundation; and is a board member of the Family Caregiver Alliance.
Catherine: My first experience with caregiving began when my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. My mother did the day to day caregiving at their home in Mexico, and I tried to help as much as I could, which proved tricky as I was living in London at the time. I researched doctors, new treatments, activities we could do together remotely, but I struggled to feel like I was doing enough. Beyond the treatments and the medicine, I found maintaining that human connection often the hardest (given busy schedules, time zones and the disease itself) but also the most rewarding. I started thinking of projects my father and I could do together. Things that would stimulate his mind and keep us both involved.
Ultimately, we decided to write a book. A pretty ambitious undertaking, yes. But I wanted so badly to capture all of his memories. He was a man of few words, and I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t try to extract all the pieces of him that I could truly keep. It was difficult, of course. But perhaps most importantly, the project was something we could do together. So we used to do these Skype calls once a week where we would talk and talk. It helped in more ways than I think I ever really anticipated. The book was such a welcome interlude to the more mundane, everyday tasks associated with caregiving.
Around that same time, I also started to get involved with my parents’ finances, making sure my mom knew what was going on. What she’d be taking on. I was trying to sort things out. All together, it was a lot.
Eventually, my life got to a point where I was stretched in too many directions and I decided that my priority was my dad, plain and simple. So I quit my job and flew to Mexico on and off for over a year, spending time with him, finding providers and equipment, researching senior homes, helping my mom get their affairs in order, dealing with family dynamics, all of that. It really was a full-time job until he passed away. A roller coaster full of memories that still hurt, but that have also taught me so much.
Today, I look after my 2 sons: one is 3 years old and the other is 9 months. I work from home part time and have a flexible schedule, which I love, so I’m with them most of my days … playing around, making meals, giving baths … going to school, classes, doctor appointments, play dates, it runs the gamut. The boys are full of energy, so it’s been pretty relentless, but incredibly rewarding too. I feel my heart expand when I look at them (most of the time), and I think the experience of waiting for them (we did so many IVF rounds!) and caring for them has inspired me to try to be a better parent and person.
Both experiences have been hectic and demanding in more ways than one, but have also taught me a lot about myself, what drives me, and how I want to spend my days going forward.
I studied International Relations and Business Administration, and over the last 20 years I’ve worked in government relations, corporate strategy, marketing strategy, and branding. When I had my first son, I decided to focus on projects and organizations that I found particularly meaningful, so I quit my job at a startup and focused my time on three nonprofits (two as board member and one as founding member). I’ve been advising them in several fields (marketing, branding, strategic planning, development, governance, etc.) since I first got involved. It’s been an interesting journey and I’m grateful to have found these opportunities.
I tend to bring structure, planning, research, and problem-solving into caregiving, which has been helpful on many occasions and not so much in others. I didn’t often stop to appreciate the softer side of things … the patience that’s required, how the situation at hand might affect others around me, how the emotional side of grief and loss is different for everyone … until I actively began caring for a person other than myself.
I’m definitely more patient and have a longer-term view on projects and progress. In a way, I’m more adaptable, I guess; I feel more attuned to the human/people/emotional side of life. It’s a perspective that’s allowed me to more readily connect with people and understand what they’re going through. Being informed, reaching out to others, having a plan, and being calm in a crisis has been helpful. And that’s true in both the case of taking care of my dad as well as my sons.
I’d tell them to try and find the moments of connection and joy, which might feel few and far between at times … but it’s really important to remember that they’re there if you’re open to seeing them. Especially with Alzheimer’s, I had to learn how to be in the moment at all times. Whenever my dad offered me a slice of the past, his thoughts on the future, something really concrete like that, it was so important to relish in it, not to let myself get consumed by however long he might have left. Right then, it didn’t matter. It couldn’t.
Loving and caring for someone can be both the most difficult and most rewarding job. It’s not just about making sure the person feels loved and cared for … there’s much more to it than that. Along the way, we discover the person we are, where our priorities lie, and how we want to relate to others. One of the greatest gifts I took away from my caregiving experience of my father, and that I take away from being a parent every day, is that in order to care for others, you must first care for yourself (something I still struggle with). If you give yourself a moment to reflect during these really difficult times, the person you are and the person you want to becomes very, very clear.
Interviewed: 10 August 2018, by Rajiv Mehta; edited by Julia Rubano
Click here for more Caring Conversations