The Caregiving Journey – Debbie Howard interview
The chairman of CarterJMRN—a Tokyo-based marketing information consultancy that advises multinational companies on their marketing strategies in Japan—Debbie Howard is a busy executive who splits her time between Tokyo and Texas. So how did she end up writing a book called The Caregiving Journey: One Downward Dog at a Time about caring practically and compassionately for the elderly in our lives?
What spurred you to begin this caregiving project?
My Mom needed my live-in help toward the end of her life, and my new role as a “nonprofessional caregiver” overwhelmed me—very little in my over three decades in business had prepared me for it. My needs for inspiration, reliable information and support from others dealing with the same issues were deep and wide. I saw firsthand both the challenges many of us face in caregiving and opportunities for personal growth.
How has your time in Japan influenced your views on caregiving?
I’ve been interested in the concept of aging and how society deals with an aging population since I was in college, when I did a for-credit film project that focused on a community center for seniors in Columbia, South Carolina. And I was lucky enough to be close to two sets of grandparents and see what happens during aging and the choices that can keep things respectful for all concerned.
Being an avid Japan watcher for over thirty years only heightened my interest in all things aging, including caregiving. Japan has the world’s fastest-aging society, so we can see the changes occur over a very short time. I love the multigenerational aspect of how Japanese families traditionally cared for their elders, and find it sad to see that practice disappearing. In the U.S., we tend to outsource the care. In both cases, however, the impact on individuals is tremendous—not just on those who need our care and support, but also on those of us called upon to help our elders to the ends of their lives. What I care most about is helping individuals to better manage their caregiving journeys, since this is where the pain and challenge is truly felt on a daily basis.
Why did you decide to write the book?
As a long-time researcher, I saw that most people I talked with didn’t have a solid plan in place with their loved ones. I guesstimate that only about 5 percent of families—both in Japan and the U.S.—have a comprehensive plan for when their parents and spouses need serious help with daily living. Having heartfelt, honest and deep conversations about death and dying is sensitive and difficult. Sometimes the parents don’t want to talk about it, and sometimes it’s the adult children. But we all have to find the courage to do that to move forward with grace.
So I wrote the book to move the bar from 5 to 30 percent at first in terms of the percentage of families who have a plan. By expanding awareness and providing tools for proper preparation, I aim to inspire everyone to be proactive in initiating discussions with their loved ones, as difficult and painful as that is. Being brave sooner is better—it gives you and your loved ones the most choice over the quality of your caregiving journey.