Jana Panarites is the founder of Agewyz Media Group, author of Scattered: My Year As An Accidental Caregiver and host of The Agewyz Podcast, a weekly interview series featuring lively conversations with experts in the field of aging and people caring for a loved one amid the demands of the own lives.
Where and when do you feel most competent? It took me a while to realize this but I’m probably most competent during a crisis. I think fast on my feet and handle pressure well—abilities that came in handy when I cared for my mother after my father died, and neither one of us had any idea where our lives were headed. I’m convinced these abilities were honed during my 16 years of living in New York City, where you see the full spectrum of human behavior and have to process a lot of information at once.
With what do you struggle? I’m a procrastinator (the flip side of being cool under pressure is that when nothing’s urgent you think everything can wait), and often push myself to embrace the slogan just do it. This procrastination comes from fear of failure… which is silly, because I’ve failed at so many things and learned so much in the process. Failure is underrated.
What one thing do you wish you had more time for? Visiting far-flung friends.
With what do you wish you had more help? I’m single and don’t have kids so am used to doing most everything for myself. Translation: by now I’m used to not having help. But it would be nice to have someone do my grocery shopping and cook a few meals for me. Those things tend to get in the way of earning a living and tending to creative pursuits.
Where do you find support? Family and close friends, and the many kind strangers who don’t hesitate to lend a helping hand when I’m out with mom—for instance at a restaurant, where the seating often needs to be reconfigured to accommodate her wheelchair.
What is your best habit? I’m a good listener. People have so many interesting things to say if you just let them talk, embrace the silences, and ask the right questions.
If you knew then, what you know now… If only I’d known how all-consuming caring for my mother would be in the aftermath of my father’s death (2009). It’s less difficult now than in the first few years, because now Mom has adjusted somewhat and is in a wonderful assisted living facility (she’s 86). And by now I have the equivalent of a Farmer’s Almanac in my head for caregiving, just from trial and error.
What is your dream retirement? An able body and mind plus a deep pocket to explore lots of new cultures.
What would you like to see employers do more of to help caregivers? Our mushrooming aging population presents a tremendous opportunity to show just how much we value families (of all kinds) in America, starting with giving employees more workplace flexibility and paid family leave across the board. Employees shouldn’t have to use vacation time or quit their jobs to care for a loved one, but many are forced to do so because workplace policies don’t reflect the reality of our lives. Employers might consider partnering with an adult day care center where employees can drop off their parents, or hiring an in-house care coordinator who doubles as a counselor for stressed-out employees. The list of possibilities is endless.
What would you like to see medical professionals do more of to support caregivers? Recognize and factor into your recommendations what the family caregiver tells you about their loved one’s behavior and their perceived condition. We know our family members better than you do, and there is no one-size-fits all. Ask us what we need, provide us with all the options, and make timely and correct diagnoses.
Who are your heroines? My grandmother traveled all on her own at a very young age from the Greek island of Lesbos to Toronto, Canada to meet her future husband (in an arranged marriage). Women travel alone all the time now, but my Yia Yia did it in the early 1920s, and she knew little English. Her brave journey inspires me to be unafraid of the unknown. My mother is also a hero for her relentless can-do spirit, which strengthens my own resolve. Other women who inspire me are those who continue to grow and learn throughout life, think creatively and perform selfless acts without seeking attention.
What do you admire in/about other caregivers? So many things. Their willingness to get outside their comfort zones to help someone they love, their persistence in the face of daily challenges, their ability to recognize joyful moments during stressful situations, the sacrifices they make for others (often to their own detriment), their incredible patience and quiet dignity.
What is your motto? Stay curious.
What is your superpower? Through six years of hands-on caregiving for my mother I’ve developed the ability to take on just about anything life throws at me and solve problems with grace, humility, and an iron backbone.
Caregiving: a blessing or a burden? Both. On some days it’s one more than the other.