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A Product Manager Uses Her Professional Skills to Manage Her Parents’ Illnesses, Finding a Whole New Meaning to ‘Project Management’

Caring Conversation — Karen Purze

Karen Purze is the author of Life in Motion, a guided workbook that helps people get their affairs in order. Prior to publishing her book and launching her own business, Karen spent many years in the product development and product management field.

Rajiv: What is your caregiving experience, right now and in the past?

Karen: Right now, I care for my mom who was disabled by a stroke in 2012, and up until January 2016, I cared for my father as well. We were all in the Chicago area, which made the caregiving portion a bit simpler in some ways. At least it didn’t uproot my life physically, as I know is the case for many who have to travel to help their parents in a crisis. My dad had colorectal cancer, which eventually took his life. My parents were very active, social, optimistic people, and when they started to have health issues, their priorities, in addition to getting better, were to stay active, healthy, and positive. So, like a lot of people, they really weren’t prepared to need help, and they didn’t want help…yet they couldn’t manage on their own.

I struggled to calibrate my parents’ need for independence with the realities of their conditions. That was most difficult for me, I think… making sure they felt seen and heard, while still offering the kind of care they required. It was hard. I had toddlers at home, a full-time job. I remember one day taking my dad to radiation treatment; he asked for help with his shoes and I realized suddenly that his were the fourth pair of shoes I’d tied that day. I think some tears might have dripped on my hands while I tied them. It was intense but eventually, you reach a new normal. You adjust.

During this time, my mother-in-law was also having health issues. While I wasn’t directly involved, my husband was. It affected our family life, for sure. There was a time around Christmas when we went from visiting my mom at home, since she was essentially homebound, to visit my dad in the hospital, and then we went and visited my mother-in-law at a rehab center. Talk about a Merry Christmas! (Laughs). So, we were spread across the whole city of Chicago in various forms of illness, wellness, and caregiving.

What is your professional background, your fields of expertise?

I have roughly 20 years’ experience in product development. I’ve held most of the leadership roles you might see in a software development organization, like engineering manager, program manager, product manager. My experience in this realm taught me how to think strategically. I like to take a big goal, break it down and then make a plan. I like to build things.

How have your professional skills and perspectives influenced or impacted your caregiving efforts?

My technical background and my analytical nature caused me to look for answers in my caregiving where there were none to be found. So, I struggled with trying to control and predict what was happening. If you’re building something like software, there’s this sense of progress, and I get a lot of satisfaction out of that. When it came to my family, I kept looking for that … I was trying to figure out how we were going to stabilize the situation to build on it. To make it better. I learned pretty quickly that things don’t really work that way in caregiving. My natural inclinations got in the way at times and made me think harder than I had previously done.

But of course, having the product management expertise and leadership experience helped, too. I coordinated across and between dozens of healthcare professionals taking care of my parents. In that way, my skills really helped a lot. I got my parents’ affairs in order in much the same way I’d manage a project at work. In that sense, it felt very second nature.

I actually ended up writing a book after all of this. It’s called Life in Motion, and is basically is a guided workbook for helping people get their affairs in order. I wanted people to feel that same relief I did when things were more settled and I was able to spend time with my parents. Quality time, without real worry about the logistical things. That was so important.

How have your caregiving experiences impacted your professional efforts?

I have been completely transformed by it. I’m more creative, I have more courage and better perspective… I’ve figured out how to let things “be what they’re going to be”. My dad was a huge proponent of that outlook, and I really understand why now. I’ve realized that there is no point in assuming the worst; that even the most painful experiences are threaded with love and joy and humor and beauty, and that knowledge, that realization, gives me strength that I don’t feel like I had before.

These experiences gave me the courage to leave my full-time job, actually, to pursue things that make me feel whole. Like writing my book, starting my own business, learning about digital marketing and how it’s affecting the aging services space. When I wrote Life in Motion I used skills from every single job I’d ever had. It was really fun to put all of that together and make something.

I think despite how hard it was at times, so much good has come from this experience. And I don’t say that lightly. Seeing someone through to the end of their life…it’s beautiful. It’ll certainly teach you to go after what you want – professionally and personally. At least it did for me!

What one piece of advice would you give someone who found themselves in similar caregiving situations?

Try to think beyond today’s crisis, even if the person you’re caring for doesn’t want to. I didn’t know this when it all started, but I later found out that the average caregiving experience is measured in years, not months. If I had known that at the start, it would have shocked me, plain and simple. But I also feel like I might have set up some personal boundaries and backup systems earlier had I truly understood the crisis as the start of something, not just something to ‘power through’. That would have helped me in the long run.

I feel like caregiving can be a slippery slope. It starts out gradual and you can maintain your footing (even in a crisis), but as time goes on things start to feel unmanageable and you can find yourself sliding down a steep hill. I found that when I stopped trying to fill every gap, other solutions emerged. Try to find a sustainable way to live your own life while caregiving…you could be doing this for a while!

Interviewed: 30 October 2018, by Rajiv Mehta; edited by Julia Rubano

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