New Year, New agebuzz Guest Blogger: Meet Susanna Barton, Writer And Founder Of Grand Plans
New Year, New agebuzz Guest Blogger: Meet Susanna Barton, Writer And Founder Of Grand Plans
January 3, 2024
We’re excited to announce that Susanna Barton, a writer and Founder of the website Grand Plans, is our newest Guest Blogger. Susanna will address themes of caregiving, helping aged loved ones, and encouraging critical conversations about the senior experience. She has been a professional writer covering business, community, and senior issues in Jacksonville, FL, for nearly 30 years and currently serves on Jacksonville Mayor Donna Deegan’s subcommittee for eldercare. Her book Grand Plans: How to Mitigate Geri-Drama in 20 Easy Steps and its accompanying workbook, the Grand Planner, is available on Amazon and through the Grand Plans website. You can follow Grand Plans on Facebook at @MyGrandPlans and on Instagram at @GrandPlans2022. You can also sign up for the Grand Plans newsletter via Substack and find the Grand Plans podcast on most major hosting sites.
Recently, agebuzz Managing Editor Connie Zuckerman had the chance to interview Susanna about her experiences and insights connected to caregiving and communication around aging and planning for the future.
CZ: Susanna, I’m so excited to welcome you to agebuzz! Can you provide us some insights as to your background, personally and professionally? Where did you grow up, what was your family situation, and your educational and professional background?
SB: I have been a writer for as long as I can remember. Growing up in San Antonio, TX, with one brother, two loving parents, and LOTS of extended family nearby, I enjoyed journaling, creative writing, and eventually news-writing on the high school newspaper staff. By the time I was 20 and my mom died after a brief illness, I’d managed to curate a nice writing portfolio that included work for The Hollins Columns (my college newspaper in Roanoke, VA), TIME magazine in New York City, the San Antonio Spurs, a local television station, the North San Antonio Times and The Blue Ridge Regional Business Journal.
But my 51-year-old mother’s untimely passing in 1992 was the real headline of my life. It created such a yucky void and informed most decisions I made moving forward. Soon after college, I joined the newsrooms of the Austin Business Journal and later The Jacksonville Business Journal and married my college boyfriend, David, ready to establish my own version of family and stability in his hometown, Jacksonville, FL. And that we did – nearly 30 years later, David and I have two grown children and have built solid careers that, for me, included roles as the editor of The Resident Community News Group, lots of freelance work, and a 10-year stint in communications at The Bolles School.
I “retired” in 2022 at age 50, not long after the unexpected passing of my 80-year-old father. I write a weekly column in The Resident and First Coast Senior Living, as well as a newsletter and blog, and I’ve written a book called Grand Plans: How to Mitigate Geri-Drama in 20 Easy Steps. This past fall, I was honored to have been named to Jacksonville Mayor Donna Deegan’s subcommittee on eldercare, a role I cherish. I also take on weird Lenten challenges each year – like giving up worry, expectations, and honest thoughts – and I then write books about those experiences. My sixth Lenten book, launching this month, is called Rolling My I-s: A Lenten Challenge to Give Up Me, Myself & I Talk.
CZ: How were you first introduced to what you describe as “Geri Drama”? What happened that led you into the world of caregiving for older individuals in your life? What surprised you and what stressed you?
SB: Oh gosh. So, interestingly, it wasn’t my parents or grandparents who first introduced me to “geri-drama,”- and by “geri-drama” I mean when an older loved one’s wheels have completely fallen off the bus due to lack of planning, and there are crises and explosions and fires to address literally everywhere, every day with every little thing. I coined the phrase five years ago after managing care for a deceased childhood friend’s parents in South Florida. Their housekeeper found my phone number and started calling me daily with alarming reports of unpaid bills, Parkinson’s disease, accidents, dementia, hospital visits, alcoholism, fraud, and much, much worse. After further investigation and contact with their attorney, I learned this couple had named me – a one-time Kindergarten friend of their deceased daughter – as their Power of Attorney and successor trustee charged with managing their affairs should they not be capable. What stressed me the most was how complicated and pervasive it all was. There was never a perfect answer to any problem, which always seemed to come out of nowhere with the speed and intensity of an automatic weapon. My husband called it a “Gordian Knot,” which sums it up. Also stressful and surprising was my utter lack of experience in problem-solving such major life issues – how someone was going to pay the power bill, afford 24-7 in-home care, take care of the big, unwieldy dog and worst for me, clean out and liquidate two secondary homes to free up cash for the expense of it all. I’m not sure if it was my age at the time (approaching 50) or if people I knew weren’t ready to talk about it yet or chose to keep it private, but all these challenges came as a total surprise to me. You read “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” when you’re going to have a baby, but there’s no book on the shelves called “How to Successfully Navigate the Senior Experience without Total Panic.”
CZ: You speak from caregiving experience. Can you tell us what types of caregiving roles you’ve held? How did those experiences affect and alter your own thinking about growing older? What led you to conclude that focusing on these issues should now be your life’s work?
SB: My caregiving experience is best described as extreme care management. With the couple I mentioned earlier, I hired a geriatric care manager, daily money manager, and attorney to help me structure their daily care needs since I lived four hours away and had a full-time job and a family to raise (hello sandwich generation!), and felt completely inept. Also, I can’t forget to mention hospice: Hospice is a huge lifesaver from a caregiving perspective. Still, my care management for this couple was one of the most time-consuming, nerve-wracking challenges I have ever taken on, even from afar. I do not know how most people (and there are many!) do it. Whether you’re on the scene rendering physical assistance or fielding calls from insurance and credit card companies, negotiating caregiver relationships, strategizing with professionals, taking a life’s worth of stuff to Goodwill, filling out forms and faxing credentials, this work is life or death – and it’s traumatic. I don’t want to do that to my kids.
From an early age, I watched my father, the oldest in his brood, become “the person” for his parents, grandmother, older family members, and his in-laws. I understood what that responsibility looks like and how overwhelming it can be. My mother’s passing happened so early and quickly that there was no caregiving involved whatsoever. My father’s caregiving needs also were short-lived. He died from pneumonia in the hospital after a 10-day stint on a ventilator. In the years prior, I had begun having frustrating conversations with him about how he intended to live out his final years. He was reluctant to discuss any financial and senior living strategies, and he just got lucky at the end of the day. Dad’s end-of-life experience, however, certainly helped inform my brother and me on the right ways to handle health care wishes, medical directives, estates, and all the aftermath.
Currently, I assist my husband and his siblings as needed while they care for their 96-year-old father, who lives independently nearby. All these experiences have emboldened me to get a plan together for myself – and stir healthy conversations about aging with others – so we can normalize the process of aging and design successful strategies for our Golden Years without foisting unnecessary geri-drama on our children and grandchildren. We can leave a better legacy than that!
CZ: Tell us about your website, My Grand Plans, and your book and workbook. What is your goal with these resources and how can agebuzz readers access them?
After my encounters with elder planning “don’ts,” and out of total desperation and PTSD, I started stirring up conversation through an online community called Grand Plans. We are also on Instagram and Facebook. I discovered many intelligent people out there have gone through excruciating senior care scenarios, and they are quite willing to talk about it – some with great enthusiasm, authority, and understanding. And if you want to see the absolute darkest side of caregiving on social media, join one of the caregivers’ group pages where people describe everyday horror stories with sad regularity. I guarantee all these people feel the same sense of resolution to do it better, smarter, and more lovingly for their children. Once you’ve been through the proverbial ringer and know how negatively it can affect loved ones, you are determined to change the course for yourself and others. Grand Plans – in the newsletter and on social media, the blog, and the podcast – is a means of facilitating conversation, sharing resources, and circulating information that can be helpful as we design better senior futures for ourselves and others.
CZ: Tell us about your “20 Steps” concept.
SB: Through conversations with geri-experienced friends on Grand Plans’ social media pages and podcasts, and via work discussions I began having as part of Mayor Donna Deegan’s subcommittee on local eldercare issues, some common threads of that perfect Grand Plan began to emerge – adding to and underscoring what a few other brave writers and realists have been putting out there into the world recently. While everyone has their unique experience navigating the Golden Years with their aging loved ones, the fundamentals of a Grand Plan are highly standard. This is excellent news because it means the steps toward gold-star senior living are well-paved.
So, after listening to others and learning from my own experiences, I discovered there are about 20 steps we can all take now – earlier than most of us think is appropriate – to reduce geri-drama during our Golden Years significantly. These inputs are based on shared stories and reflections – from people I know and books I have read. Together, these 20 moves form a Grand Plan that guarantees reduced stress for the loved ones who will one day be our caregivers, organizers, or life managers. Take even one step of this Grand Plan, and the future looks brighter. Take at least 10 steps, and your golden years may be truly golden. According to multiple conversations, interviews, and research, I believe the fundamental action items for designing a workable Grand Plan are to take nine concrete steps (including contacting professionals, documenting your wishes, and being realistic about your future) and supplement them with 11 soft steps (like embracing your age, trusting those who love you and creating a wonderful legacy), which I break down in greater detail in my book, Grand Plans: How to Mitigate Geri-Drama in 20 Easy Steps. I plan to discuss these 20 Steps in detail in the posts I contribute to agebuzz.
It bears repeating: If you can accomplish, discuss, or consider at least a few – even ONE – of the 20 objectives on your approach to the sunset stroll, you will shine and be shown great appreciation and affection by your people. Only good comes from honest conversation, realistic planning, trust, compassion, and empathy for others – this is the truth! The accompanying workbook I created, the Grand Planner, is a place to write it all down and hold yourself to it. I highly recommend getting both!
CZ: Is there anything else you want to make sure agebuzz readers know about you, your mission, and the resources you’ve created?
SB: You should know you are not alone on this mission to better plan for the future. According to a February 2020 report from the U.S. Census Bureau, all Baby Boomers will be over 65 by 2030 – marking a demographic turning point for the United States. In 2016, there were 49.2 million people 65 years or older (15 percent of the population), and by 2030, that number is expected to be 73.1 million, or 21 percent of the population. Jump to 2060, and the population estimate for people 65 years or older climbs to a staggering 94.7 million people. That’s nearly a quarter of the U.S. population! Mitigating geri-drama is the single most important event of our lives. It’s all been forecasted and calculated. We cannot “fix” it, sidestep it, or pretend it’s not happening. But we can do something to prepare for it: we can talk about it. We can anticipate it. We can embrace thoughts like “What can I do now to ensure this doesn’t happen to me and the people I love? How can I learn from the challenges my friends and I face? How can I leave a better legacy for my family?” We can answer these questions with planning, acceptance, and good old-fashioned conversation. I look forward to having many of those talks with you via agebuzz and on MyGrandPlans.com.