4 Amazing Caregiving Stories

Love doesn’t stop when a parent, spouse, or friend gets sick. Here, remarkable stories of stepping up, sticking around, and finding joy.

By Camille Peri from Reader's Digest | December 2009

Plus: 6 Things These Caregivers Wish They’d Known Sooner
Lonnie Ali, wife of Muhammad Ali, shares her 10 Best Tips For Being a Caregiver and 10 Ways To Take Care of Yourself.

There are only four kinds of people in this world,” former first lady Rosalynn Carter once wrote. “Those who have been caregivers, those who currently are caregivers, those who will be caregivers, those who will need caregivers.” Her comment is true now more than ever before. This is a nation of caregivers. You can see it in the numbers: Approximately 50 million Americans provide the majority of the help needed by relatives or friends who are elderly, ill, or disabled. And those figures are only going to grow—the number of people 65 and over is expected to double in the next 40 years, and the number of those over 85 will more than triple.

Muhammad and Lonnie AliPHOTOGRAPHED BY TAMARA REYNOLDS

But the reality of caregiving is best understood not with statistics but through the stories of spouses, children, siblings, and friends who have stepped forward when a loved one needed them. Their experiences illustrate what’s new about caregiving these days, and what never changes.

What’s new: an economic climate that makes the cost of caregiving harder than ever to bear; an increasingly mobile society in which families may be separated by a continent when a crisis unfolds; and the ripple effects of divorce and the increasing numbers of people who are choosing to stay single, which mean that many people are reaching their middle years and beyond without a spouse or child at hand. What never changes: the fact that neither fame nor fortune nor physical gifts protects against sickness and old age. And the fact that no difficulty will keep family and friends from doing what they can to help. Meet some of the caregivers who have risen to the challenge. For all of them, the experience has been stressful. But it has also brought their lives new meaning and stretched their capacity to love.

Hope that floats like a butterfly
Lonnie Ali was six years old and had just gotten home from school in Louisville, Kentucky, when she saw a crowd of boys gathered around a handsome young man in a white shirt, a bow tie, and black dress pants. “Look,” said her mother, standing in the doorway, “that’s Cassius Clay.”

Clay, who would soon claim the first of three heavyweight boxing titles and adopt the Muslim name Muhammad Ali, made a point of calling the shy little girl over. And from then on, she recalls, whenever he visited his mother across the street, he stopped by her house as well. “He was like a big brother,” she says. “He’d sit and talk, and I’d believe what he said before I’d believe my father. I figured my father would tell me stuff just because he wanted to protect me, but Muhammad would tell it to me the way it was.”

They remained friends, even as he became a world champion and she went off to college, where she got a psychology degree and then an MBA. When she was 17, Lonnie says, she realized that she would marry him someday—“I knew it was fate,” she says. Twelve years later, she did, becoming the boxer’s fourth wife. Muhammad had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, but the diagnosis didn’t faze Lonnie. “I knew the man, not the celebrity,” she says. “That’s who I loved. And he knew I would always be in his corner.”

For a long time, Muhammad’s disease barely slowed him down. Lonnie was more of a care partner than caregiver, nudging her husband to take his medicine and accompanying him to doctors’ appointments. But gradually, his symptoms became more intrusive. One turning point occurred about 15 years ago, when the couple were out to dinner in Boston. “Muhammad went to put food in his mouth and he froze,” she recalls—temporary immobility is characteristic of the disease. Another was when the famously animated boxer became stone-faced, also a classic sign of the disease. “Then I knew I had some challenges that I really needed to deal with and learn about,” Lonnie says.

The challenges have been practical, emotional, and psychological as much as medical. Lonnie has had to recognize her own limitations: At one point five years ago, as she cared for her husband, mothered their teenage son, Asaad, and ran a business, among other things, she felt so unfocused, she thought she had attention deficit disorder. “I went to the doctor and fell asleep in the waiting room,” she says. “The doctor said, ‘You don’t have ADD. You’re sleep-deprived.’”

She’s also had to learn to accept what she can’t control. Muhammad is still a big man, with piercing eyes and muscular arms, the result of working out every day. But his disease means that this man of unparalleled physical gifts now walks haltingly; once famous for his banter, he often sits in silence. “I’ve been with him for so long, I can basically look at him and tell what he wants and needs,” Lonnie says.

Yet the illness can steal only so much, and Muhammad still has plenty he wants to do. A quarter of a century into his struggle with Parkinson’s disease, he’s taking piano lessons. Most important, this lifelong supporter of humanitarian causes still feels he has a mission to help other people. Early in his disease, Muhammad shied away from the spotlight. “He used to play to the camera, but the camera was no longer his friend,” Lonnie says. But then he made an appearance with Michael J. Fox, also a Parkinson’s sufferer, who has been open about his own movement problems. “I think he thought, If Michael can do it, I can do it.”

Now Muhammad Ali doesn’t care what people think when they see him. Early this year, in an essay for National Public Radio’s “This I Believe,” the boxing legend wrote about carrying the Olympic torch to light the cauldron at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta and realizing that his tremors had taken over. “I heard a rumble in the stadium that became a pounding roar and then turned into a deafening applause,” he wrote. He understood then that Parkinson’s had not defeated him.

“There’s still a lot for me to learn from him, and I never forget that,” Lonnie Ali says. “Muhammad was the epitome of strength and beauty, but could someone with physical challenges really relate to him? Probably not. But now they can identify with him. We used to get letters all the time about people with Parkinson’s who wouldn’t go out of the house, but because they saw Muhammad out, now they go out.

“He still has that power to inspire people—without even opening his mouth.”

They didn’t let distance get in the way
As young adults, Julie Winokur and Ed Kashi were both glad—eager, even—to leave their families behind. It wasn’t for a lack of love; they were just excited about making their own way. “When I left for college, on some level I thought, I don’t care if I ever see my hometown again,” Kashi remembers.

Kashi, a photojournalist, and Winokur, a writer and filmmaker, ended up in San Francisco, thousands of miles from their childhood homes. There they established careers, started a family, and founded Talking Eyes Media, a multimedia production company that focuses on social issues neglected by the mainstream press.

But in 1999, everything changed. For seven years, the two of them had collaborated on a project called Aging in America: The Years Ahead, photographing and taping elderly people to draw attention to the challenges confronting the nation as the population ages. Tragedy struck in the midst of the work, when Kashi’s mother unexpectedly died in the Florida condo where she’d lived alone. Though Kashi’s brother lived nearby and had kept tabs on her, it was ten days before he found her.

“I couldn’t stop myself from crying,” recalls Kashi, 52. “All I could think of was the sadness of her life, of dying alone.”

“We get to go wherever we want and be whoever we want to be in this country,” adds Winokur, 46. “The downside is that you sever roots, and when you need the continuity that you get when you live in one place your whole life, you don’t have it.”

So when Winokur’s 80-year-old father, Herbie Winokur, showed early signs of dementia, the couple decided to relocate their family to New Jersey and buy a house where he could live with them. “We’d done all this work on what it’s like to get old in America,” Winokur says. “When my dad needed us, it was one of those ‘walk the walk’ moments.” Over the next few years, the couple worked, raised their children—Isabel and Eli, who were seven and ten years old when their grandfather moved in—and cared for Winokur’s father. It was a hectic, frustrating, sometimes grief-filled, and ultimately deeply satisfying experience. With funds from the sale of Herbie’s house, they were able to hire paid caregivers, but even so, simply getting through the day often took all they had. Winokur juggled working, parenting, managing the caregivers, and providing hands-on care for her father. Kashi, who frequently had to travel for work, also got down in the trenches whenever he was at home. The kids, too, made sacrifices—their parents’ tempers and attention spans were shorter, and they couldn’t always be counted on to make it to school and sports activities. As for together time as a couple: “We had zero space for each other,” Winokur remembers. “For a couple of years, we felt like machines going through the motions just to keep it all moving.”

Early on, Winokur worried that her children would grow to resent Herbie for taking their parents away from them. But ultimately, she thinks Isabel and Eli got something important even from that. “Our kids had to learn that their grandfather’s needs took precedence over theirs,” she recalls. “In fact, his needs took precedence over all our needs. Ed and I felt that in the long run, it wouldn’t hurt the kids but would help them realize what it means to occasionally care for someone else more than yourself. It’s been a valuable life lesson for them.”

Herbie Winokur died at home in 2008, surrounded by his family. Looking back now, his daughter and son-in-law say they feel lucky their circumstances allowed them to make the choices they did.

“I’m convinced he got the best care he possibly could have received,” Winokur says. “The fact that everything was happening right in front of us meant that he was never neglected. Most of all, he had constant love and familiarity around him.

“We had a calling, and we answered the calling,” she continues. “There’s something gratifying about feeling like you did the right thing. What is life about if we don’t prioritize our loved ones?”

Become more interesting every week!

Get our Read Up newsletter

Sending Message
how we use your e-mail