Joan Lunden's Other Healthcare Battle

Joan Lunden knows what it’s like to be hit by an unexpected health crisis.

Americans who didn’t already know Lunden from her 17 years co-hosting ABC’s “Good Morning America” certainly know her now. She appears bald (and beautiful) on the cover of People magazine this month for a story about her fight against breast cancer. She also spent a week talking about her diagnosis on NBC’s “Today.”

What you might not know is that Lunden also served for many years as a caregiver for her elderly mother and for her brother, who suffered from type 2 diabetes. As she was planning her brother’s funeral in 2005, Lunden found herself in the same situation a growing number of Americans must contend with: Where would she place her 88-year-old mother, who could no longer live independently?

In an interview with Healthline, Lunden candidly shared her experience searching for a spot for her mom in a suitable senior living community. She didn’t mince words about the staggering cost of such care, and the heart-wrenching toll that placing a loved one in the hands of others can take on a family.

“Everyone is going to be at this doorstep at one time or another,” she said.

And unlike cancer, this is something we can all prepare for.

Related News: Millions of American Caregivers Offer Billions in Support »

So Many Seniors, So Little Money Saved

Every day in the United States, 10,000 people turn 65. That trend will continue for the next 15 years.

There are 76 million so-called “baby boomers,” people born between 1945 and 1965. By 2030, 18 percent of the U.S. population will be at least 65 years old, according to the Pew Research Center.

Lunden’s mother lived to be just shy of 95. She certainly never expected to live to that age, Lunden said. “You can still go to the party store and get 50-year-old birthday party décor that says ‘Over the Hill.’ That’s not the way we live our lives today. At 60 we’re incredibly engaged and vibrant and active and robust,” she said.

We have our heads in the sand ... It’s self-protective in a sense. But not planning is irresponsible, as it has devastating emotional and financial consequences.
Joan Lunden

For some people, 50 may be only halfway through their lives. Many people who live longer than they might have without modern medicine suffer from dementia or have other needs that require expensive, around-the-clock care.

“I’m on a campaign now to go out and try to make America understand that your timeline is no longer the timeline we all used to operate on,” Lunden aid. “No longer are you over the hill at 50, retired at 60, and dying at age 75. You’re thriving and still working because you have to, perhaps into your seventies.”

Statistics released last week from the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) show that 38 percent of U.S. workers are not saving for healthcare costs. Of those, 44 percent have no plans to do so in the future. Among those who are saving, more than half are worried they’re not putting enough money away.

The AARP report revealed that more than 5 million Americans currently suffer from dementia, a number expected to rise to 16 million by 2050. Two years ago, adult day care averaged $26,280 per year, the reported stated, and a private room in a nursing home racked up a $92,977 annual bill.

“We have our heads in the sand,” Lunden said. “We don’t do it to be irresponsible. It’s self-protective in a sense. But not planning is irresponsible, as it has devastating emotional and financial consequences.”

Read More: Study Says Daughters Do Twice as Much as Sons to Care for Aging Parents »

How 'A Place for Mom' Can Help

Lunden is the spokesperson for A Place for Mom, a free elder care referral service that helps families find care homes in their area by phone or online.

Before her brother’s death, he and Lunden’s mother lived together in a condominium. Lunden’s mother didn’t want to be separated from her ill son, and Lunden could not find a place that would take them both because her brother was a smoker.

Joan Lunden

As her brother’s condition deteriorated, he retreated to his room. Even sunlight would trigger migraine headaches, Lunden said. Her mom, meanwhile, watched television by herself.

When it came time to place her mother in a care home, Lunden admits that she didn't fully understand the level of care her mom needed. “I so misplaced mom the first time, and it’s because I went out looking for a place that would have been perfect for mom 10 or 15 years [prior] because that’s how I still saw her, going down to the dining room, playing cards with her friends, having visitors in her apartment," she said. "My mom was way beyond that point.”

She ended up choosing a small place with only five or six residents that provided 24-hour care. She said she could have used assistance from an organization like A Place for Mom.

"[Senior advisers] get us at the worst point in our lives, when we’re behaving worse than a disgruntled teenager, and we think we have a handle on everything," Lunden said. "They get us at our most vulnerable.”

Caring for Parents and Kids: 1.3 American Children Care for Sick Relatives While Still in School »

Grab a Video Camera and Pretend to Be Joan

To avoid the stress of a crisis situation that leads to hurried decisions about where to place a parent, planning needs to begin early. Two things have to happen. First, the child needs to find out how their parent wants to spend their golden years. Second, the parent needs to be financially stable enough to pay for future care. Often times, children end up dipping into their own retirements to pay for a parent’s care.

A great way to start the conversation that everyone dreads is to create a living history during the holidays. It is a good idea to start with your grandparents, if possible, so mom or dad will know what to expect when their turn comes.

“Get a video camera, pretend you’re Joan Lunden, and write out an interview,” she said. “Tell them ‘I want to know more about what life was like and what the world was like when you were a young kid.’ Get them to talk about the cost of things. Did they go to school in a one-room schoolhouse? What did they do as a family on Friday or Saturday night?”

Then slowly bring them into the present. Is life how they imagined it would be at this point in their lives? Where do they see themselves headed in the future? If they want to stay in their home until the day they die, have they saved enough for home care?

Related News: Caregivers for Elderly Parents Are the New 'Working Moms' »

Make sure you also have a durable power of attorney, so someone can manage their affairs when they no longer can. Get a signed HIPAA release so family members who are not the power of attorney can also get medical updates. 

Is It Time for Senior Living? What to Look For

Lunden said children need to be mindful of what they see when visiting their parents. Open the cupboard and the refrigerator. Is the food expired? Are they eating nutritious meals or microwavable, processed foods?

Is the house unkempt? Is there a safety mat in the tub or shower? Are there throw rugs they could trip on? 

I thought, 'Could I get in and out and get chemotherapy and not tell anybody?' Then I thought, ‘Your dad was a cancer surgeon. His life was cut short. This is your opportunity to step up and take the baton.'
Joan Lunden

How is their memory and thinking? If they can’t remember a friend when they walk in the door, will they remember to take their medicine?

“In retrospect, all the signs were there,” Lunden said. “With distance, I will admit that I turned a blind eye.”

Lunden said her biggest regret is not placing her mother in a senior living community sooner. “Had she gone into a lively senior facility at 70, she would have been playing cards with the girls, getting on the bus and going to a show or shopping. Her later years would have been far different and her memory would have stayed far better.”

Lunden’s philosophy about her mother shines a spotlight on her own vitality. Instead of retreating during chemotherapy, Lunden is on the circuit talking not only about her cancer, but also her role as a caregiver.

While falling asleep several months ago, she pondered how to react to her cancer diagnosis. She thought about her dad, an oncologist who died in a plane crash in Malibu Canyon, Los Angeles, when she was very young.

"I thought, 'Could I get in and out and get chemotherapy and not tell anybody?'" Lunden recalled. “Then I thought, ‘Your dad was a cancer surgeon. His life was cut short. This is your opportunity to step up and take the baton.'"

Old Age or Something Else? 10 Early Symptoms of Dementia »