The ability to laugh, strong family bonds and a resolve to take life day-by-day pulled Morris County Sheriff James M. Gannon through many years of care-taking for his late wife, Lisa Gannon, before she passed from multiple sclerosis.
At the invitation of the United Way of Northern New Jersey Caregivers Coalition, Sheriff Gannon shared a deeply personal story at a recent Coalition meeting about how he coped with his beloved wife’s illness while working full-time as a law enforcement officer and raising a daughter.
“She was one of those women who understood me when I didn’t understand myself,” said Sheriff Gannon, who unabashedly refers to his late wife as “the love of my life.”
“She was a cool woman. I can’t say enough about her. She made me a better person. She was beautiful, intelligent, kind and compassionate,” he said.
Lisa Gannon, a triplet, was a registered nurse and administrative director of cardiology with Atlantic Health System when she started feeling fatigue, having back pain and other symptoms in the mid-1990’s. After multiple tests and consultations, Sheriff Gannon said, his wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis which most directly impaired her ability to breathe.
Lisa Gannon continued to work for Atlantic Health Systems for three years with the diagnosis until she stopped working in April 1998, when her daughter was eight. Sheriff Gannon said his love and admiration for his wife and daughter, coupled with humor and supportive relatives with whom he shared household tasks and caregiving, kept him afloat.
The Sheriff’s wife of 26 years died on May 28, 2010.
Sheriff Gannon recommended that caregivers take time to care for themselves also. He said others stepped in so he could visit friends or watch a ball game, and he vividly remembers all the times he returned home to the sound of laughter as his mother, Genevieve, made his wife chortle.
He said his daughter, Kate, didn’t know her mother well as a healthy person so he tried to fulfill the role of both parents.
“Although there are challenges in raising a child in that environment I think there’s a lot of good. There’s compassion, love, family values and commitment, if you want to see it,” he said.
The Sheriff pantomimed for the caregivers and service providers at the meeting how he went dress shopping with his daughter and tossed clothing over a dressing room door.
“I tried to do Mom and Dad and I think I did a pretty good job at it but it’s not the same. It’s not the same in things like dress shopping. I’m at the dress shop in the city with my daughter. I’m like the only Dad at Kleinfeld’s and I loved every minute of it. But a caregiver has to take on multiple jobs in the home, right?” he said.
The Sheriff advised caregivers they may feel judged or criticized for living day-by-day instead of planning for the future.
“People would ask ‘What do you think about the future?’ I was trying to get through today. And, today’s a lot,” he said.
“I tell people to work in ‘operational periods.’ I always tell people don’t think too far ahead. There is strategic planning and things like that but you have to deal with the moment and make that as comfortable as you can for the patient, for children that are in the house, and yes, for yourself,” Sheriff Gannon said.
For more information about the Caregivers Coalition, click www. UnitedWayNNJ.org/CaregiversCoalition.