For a dozen years, as her father's Alzheimer's grew worse, her career was taking off. As a reporter, Mary Ellen Geist covered the death of Princess Diana, riots in Los Angeles, and the occupation of Haiti. Her colleagues called her "Danger Girl." She won Associated Press and Edward R. Murrow awards for her work. Not one for long-term relationships, she identified herself by her job, introducing herself with the call letters of the various radio stations where she worked -- KFWB, KGO, WCBS -- following her name like academic degrees.
So when Geist decided to leave a prestigious radio news anchor job in New York to return to Detroit in 2005 to help her failing father, Woody, and rescue her mother, Rosemary, from being his sole caregiver, she dove into the task like a reporter getting a new assignment. Given her professional competence in high-stress situations, she thought, "How hard can it be?"
"I thought we'd sing together, I'd cook with Mom, we'd go through the family photos, I'd clean up everything in the house and help them organize their lives and change their lives for the better," she recalls. "I wish I'd known how exhausting it would be."
So exhausting that Geist sometimes barely recognizes her old capable self in her new role. But, as she writes in her wonderful book, Measure of the Heart: A Father's Alzheimer's, A Daughter's Return, she could see herself in the faces of other "designated daughters" -- single siblings who've taken on the role of caring for Mom and Dad.
"We find each other easily in crowds," Geist writes. "The daughters -- we look each other in the eye, as if to ask, 'Where's your husband? Where are your children? Are you single, too? Did you leave your life in a big city to come home to help your parents, too?'
"We often have unkempt hair, no makeup, and a look of exasperation in our eyes" -- the results, she notes, of having just wrestled a parent into tennis shoes after trying to get him to eat his cereal and take his pills. "Sometimes we look very, very lost. Almost as lost as our parents who have Alzheimer's."
Lost as they may sometimes look, these women are part of a dynamic new social phenomenon. In a 2005 New York Times article about Geist and other unmarried, career-track daughters who've returned home to care for their parents, Jane Gross wrote that sociologists are calling it the "Daughter Track": a later-in-life "career downsizing" similar to the Mommy Track.
"The stereotype was the spinster -- the daughter who was lost and couldn't find a husband and didn't really have a great job, so she's the one who should go home and take care of the parents," says Geist. "What I'm finding more and more are daughters who had great careers and were happy and successful in their lives -- but chose this. That's how we're redefining the role of caregiver."
While the depths of caregiving were unexpected to Geist, so were the rewards. Far from being lost, she says caregiving has helped her find a new part of herself. "It has expanded my heart in a whole new way," she says. "I have this patience I didn't know I had. And this sense of giving over -- and giving up the petty, stupid things that you thought were so important in your life -- to help somebody in need feels really good.
"I've changed the markers by which I lead my life. I found this quote recently from Mother Teresa: 'If we have no peace, it's because we've forgotten we belong to one another.' I think that coming home was a way of saying I belong to my parents and they belong to me."
For more of Mary Ellen Geist's thoughts on the highs and lows of caregiving, and her father's remarkable public Christmas concert a decade into Alzheimer's, read the full interview.