Self Caring

Pat Summitt's Son and Crossing Over to "Caregiving"

Last updated: Aug 29, 2011


Tyler Summitt is a caregiver-to-be. That's what I kept thinking as I saw him sitting in interviews beside his mother, the legendary University of Tennessee women's basketball head coach Pat Head Summitt, who announced last week that she'd been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease at age 59. At some future date, this college student will cross the line from supportive son into caregiving son.

Here at, we talk a lot about the "uh-oh moment," when you first realize undeniably that your parent, spouse, or other loved one has a life-changing -- or lives-changing -- problem. Tyler Summitt has been there already, wondering about his mother's memory problems even before her diagnosis by the Mayo Clinic. But he's sure to encounter another family-member milestone: Realizing that, wow, I've become a caregiver.

Caregiving is an identity that can sneak up on you. At first, you just feel that you're helping your loved one the way you've always provided various emotional and practical support. You're doing what mates or children do. You don't think of yourself as a "caregiver."

Then, almost before you know it, comes the day when you're writing all your loved one's checks because he or she can't. Or you're lining up pills into pillboxes and doling them out. Or you're changing his or her diaper. The nature of your relationship has subtly (or not so subtly) shifted. And your own life, increasingly, risks taking a back seat.

Even if you still don't identify with the term "caregiver," you've become one. You may be a long-distance caregiver, a hands-on caregiver, or a part-time caregiver -- but your primary role as "son," "daughter," "wife," "husband," "grandchild," "niece," has morphed into a dual identity.

Tyler Summitt faces an extra inevitability about this role, since his mother is divorced from his father and he's an only child. Even though Coach Summitt probably has a vast support network and can afford the best professional help, managing caregiving tends to fall especially heavily on the shoulders of an only child.

Do you remember the moment or phase when you first thought of yourself as a "caregiver?" What advice would you give Tyler Summitt and the other caregivers-to-be out there, who know there's been a game change in their lives but can't quite yet visualize the center-forward role they'll be playing?