Jenn is a caregiver coach and founder of Senior Shower Project. She believes in celebrating caregiving with fun, love, and positivity. Jenn cared for her Grandma with diabetes for 10 years. She describes her Grandma, In, as “sassy, loud, funny, and lovable”. Jenn’s grandmother raised her and her brother for over 25 years, so when the time came that roles were reversed they both stepped in and made a pact to care for her and honor her wish to aging-in-place.
As matriarch of the family, she taught Jenn traditional Chinese family values, hard work ethic, and unconditional love. In May 2015, at 98 years old, In died from a stroke. Both Jenn and her brother were at her bedside when she took her final breath.
Jenn’s caregiving experience influenced her career and inspired an entrepreneurial and volunteer spirit in her. In 2015, she founded Senior Shower Project, a company that creates celebration products for caregivers and she facilitates support groups for young adult and LGBTQ dementia caregivers.
We spoke with Jenn about her experience as a caregiver, here’s what she had to say.
What made you seek a formal diagnosis?
Since my brother and I lived with Grandma, we were able to see her physical changes. Plus, we had weekly dinners with extended family members so the entire family was around to notice safety concerns. Grandma’s diabetes gave her swollen ankles, which made it difficult for her to walk. We noticed she was having trouble walking around the house, she leaned on the walls and kitchen counters. Several times, she fell on the floor from sliding off her chair while getting up. We got her a walker and installed grab bars around the house because falling was a serious concern.
To keep an eye on grandma’s physical safety, I decided to quit my job and stay at home to be her primary caregiver. Later, after a MRI scan, we found out that she had a pinched sciatic nerve, which made her incontinent and even more difficult for her to get up on her own. The changes to Grandma’s physical ability happened gradually over years. She progressed into using a wheelchair and wore diapers. She needed assistance with toileting, bathing, dressing, walking, cooking, and taking medication.
Over time, caring for grandma became a full time family effort. My brother and I managed most days with rotating weekend shifts. Aunties, uncles, and cousins helped out on days when we needed a break. Eventually, we were able to hire an additional caregiver to help with home care tasks. We were also fortunate to have a big extended family so everyone pitched in on caregiving when they were available.
What do you know now, that you wish you knew then?
I wish I knew more about anticipatory grief. I didn’t know there was an actual term that describes the mental and emotional process of expecting the death of a loved one. During Grandma’s last years and final months in hospice care, periodically I experienced an emotional roller coaster filled with worry, anger, frustration, guilt, doubt, resentment, and sadness. I thought I was just burnout from caregiving. My family didn’t talk about feelings openly and, in Chinese culture, talking about death was taboo and a bad omen. None of my peers at that time we’re going through the same experience. I felt alone in my thoughts and feelings. I was scared to lose my Grandma, who I viewed as both my mother and father. It would have been helpful for someone to tell me that my feelings were a natural part of anticipatory grief and that my worries were completely valid. I would have felt less alone if I knew other people were feeling the same way about anticipating the death of a parent.
Was Family Caregiver Alliance / Bay Area Caregiver Resource Center able to help you with your caregiving journey?
I discovered FCA after I finished caregiving for Grandma. I wished I knew of FCA’s services beforehand. It would have been so great to attend caregiver retreats to meet other folks and to learn coping skills at classes.
I encourage everyone to find their local CRC center and utilize the resources available.
As a caregiver, what resources do you think would be beneficial to offer?
I think there should be more 1-on-1 caregiver mentorship programs. I attended caregiver support groups and I found value in listening to other people who were further along on their caregiver journey. Hearing about what could be in my future helped me accept my caregiver role. I learned about other people’s strengths and vulnerabilities. As a group, they gave me caregiving advice. But outside of the support group, I didn’t really have anybody to turn to. A connection to a caregiver mentor can provide a personal space for a caregiver to check-in with someone on their challenges, successes, and overall well-being.
Also, I think there should be more peer-to-peer caregiver support groups. I was dating and in my mid-twenties when I started caregiving and oftentimes I was the youngest person in the support groups that I attended. I didn’t relate much to the older adults who were talking about spousal caregiving, long term care insurance, and estate planning. I was more concerned about finding a way to pursue a career and develop a serious relationship while juggling caregiving full-time. It would have been nice to hear if other caregivers within my age group were dealing with the same issues and how they dealt with them.
What advice do you have for fellow caregivers?
Embrace caregiving like a lifestyle, not like a job. Embrace the identity of being a caregiver. Be proud. Tell people you’re a caregiver and share your story. You’ll be amazed at how caregiving is a great conversation starter. People aren’t used to sharing about caregiving because it is often associated with sadness and grief. Once you start the conversation, people will have feelings and stories to share. Storytelling is a powerful tool for human connection, empowerment, and healing during challenging times.
How has your experience as a caregiver influenced your career and life?
Caregiving transformed my entire outlook on life and career. Caregiving inspired me to not take life for granted, to take care of my body and mind, to show compassion to people in need, and to express love to my family and friends. I developed a passion for uplifting and motivating caregivers because I knew other caregivers would benefit from positive acknowledgement and appreciation.
What is Senior Shower Project?
I was about 5 years into caregiving when I attended my first baby shower. I noticed the joy and happiness in family and friends for celebrating parenthood. People were eager to give parenting advice and brought useful gifts for the parent-to-be. I saw the community come together to help set-up a successful beginning for a new parent, one who was about to take care of a new baby. As a senior caregiver, I saw the parallels in caring for a baby and caring for an older adult, both are dependent human beings who need help with essential needs. I thought if there was a party for people who took care of the beginning stages of life, then there should be a party for people who took care of the later stages in life! I decided to call this party a Senior Shower®, a new tradition that celebrates Caregiverhood™. People will get together with food and drinks, share caregiving advice, and bring useful caregiver gifts and tools for the caregiver-to-be. Family and friends will come together and help set-up a successful beginning for a new caregiver, one who is about to take care of a senior in the family. I believe becoming a senior caregiver is absolutely a life milestone worth celebrating!
I launched my startup Senior Shower Project in 2015 with hopes of creating a new party category for caregivers. I currently sell a caregiver appreciation greeting card line, Caregiver Cards. I’m also curating caregiver gift boxes and designing caregiver party kits. Join my celebration and find me on social media!
What is one of your most cherished memories with your Grandma?
My 33rd birthday was a memorable celebration in San Francisco. My birthday wish that year was for Grandma to see the Golden Gate Bridge, which she hadn’t seen in many years, and to bring her wheelchair as close as possible to the water at Crissy Field Beach. She didn’t go outdoors much so I knew this outdoor trip was going to make her happy which makes me happy.
This trip was a collective effort. My family drove Grandma from San Jose up to San Francisco. My friends put together a potluck picnic. As a surprise for Grandma, I picked up a beach wheelchair rental from Golden Gate National Recreation Area. When Grandma saw the big wheels on the beach wheelchair, she exclaimed “WAHHH!” and I said, “Surprise! I’m rolling you onto the beach!”. At first, she didn’t want to get on the beach because she said it was too much work for me. But after a few minutes of stumbling and carving our way through the beach sand, she relaxed in the wheelchair and started to enjoy the scenery while we headed towards the water. She pointed to the bridge and talked about the open space and wind. People were impressed with our beach wheelchair and gave us nods and thumbs ups. Grandma enthusiastically waved back to them in return. Several people came up to us, asked her how old she was, and shook her hand in a respectful manner. Grandma only spoke Chinese so I translated each conversation from English to Chinese. Grandma was beaming, smiling, and giggling from all the attention. Then along the way she started shouting to people, “Thank you for coming. See you again next year!” I was shocked! Once we got to the water edge, I leaned over and said, “Grandma, today is MY birthday!”
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Jenn’s story is a great reminder about how important it is to ask for help. You do not have to go on this caregiving journey alone. Find your local CRC and reach out today!