Marilyn Brown's Decision to Leave County Commission Shines Light on the Caregiving Crisis

The former Franklin County commissioner gave up a job she loved to look after the people she loves.

Joy Frank-Collins
Marilyn Brown in her Short North home

In 2020, then-Franklin County Commissioner Marilyn Brown began a new custom. When a virtual meeting came to a close, she would remind attendees to check in on family and friends they hadn’t seen or talked to in a long time. She continued these regular nudges through the year, as the pandemic raged on and the weight of her work as a Central Ohio political and civic leader grew heavier and heavier. Then, in January 2021, she had an epiphany. 

“What the hell am I doing?” she thought. “This is not making sense anymore. I’m telling everybody else to look in on people, and I can’t even go up to Cleveland to see my mother. Why am I doing this?” 

It’s an understatement to say that COVID-19 triggered a disruption of epic proportions to daily life for a majority of people across the world. Public officeholders found themselves managing coronavirus crisis after crisis, not really able to do the work they were elected to accomplish. Amid this difficult environment, Brown’s thoughts turned to her mother, Bea Epstein, 92, who lives in an independent/assisted living community in the same city where she raised her two daughters, Marilyn and Cindy. “I loved my job. I’d been doing it for 14-and-a-half years, and I loved every minute of it, but I started to really wonder, ‘Is this what I really need to be doing? Am I ever going to get that time back with my mother?’” 

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While Epstein is fairly spry for her age—she still likes to cut the occasional rug and takes care to don lovely red lipstick for media video interviews—Brown, 67, says her mother’s memory has started to decline over the past year. And not being able to visit with people in person for most of that time hasn’t helped. She needed more of the emotional support she’d come to rely on from her youngest daughter, and for Brown, the balance was becoming precarious. 

Marilyn Brown and her daughter Beryl Piccolantonio video chat with Bea Epstein, Brown's mother, who lives in Cleveland

To further compound the issue, she also found that it was becoming difficult to balance her work and providing emotional support for her daughter Daryn Brown, 42, who has complex regional pain syndrome, a chronic condition that limits her mobility, forcing her to use a wheelchair. 

“I’ve been closer to my mother emotionally, always, and with Daryn, I’ve always been her go-to person. I’ve always been able to juggle,” Brown says. “For years, I’ve juggled and juggled this stuff, but it’s been harder and harder.” 

After consulting with her most trusted advisers—including her husband, Eric, a former Ohio Supreme Court chief justice and a current member of the Columbus Board of Education—Brown decided to step down from her role. It was a difficult choice for Brown, the longest-serving Franklin County commissioner. During her time in office, Brown championed social justice, oversaw massive construction projects and participated in high-stakes civic deals like the Nationwide Arena bailout and the rescue of the Columbus Crew. 

She told her staff first about her decision and then on Monday, May 10, informed her fellow commissioners, Kevin Boyce and John O’Grady. “I couldn’t tell them until the day before [the public announcement] because in political circles, you tell one person and the whole world knows. But I so wanted to tell them,” she says. And then she set about making phone calls to leaders across the city and county. “It was hard,” she adds, voice at barely a whisper. “People said they understood, but it was hard.” 

The next day, at the conclusion of the Franklin County Board of Commissioners’ regular Tuesday meeting, Brown formally resigned. Her last day in office was Friday, May 14. 

Brown’s mother, Epstein, says she’s not so sure she could have made the choice her daughter did. “I have to give her all the credit in the world for knowing her own mind. I trust her judgment. It has taken her a long way.” 

Brown’s predicament is not unusual. According to a 2020 study conducted by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP, 1 in 5 Americans, or about 53 million, identifies as a caregiver. That’s an increase of 9.5 million people since 2015, a jump the report’s authors attribute to such factors as aging baby boomers, workforce shortages in health care or long-term services, and a push by states to support home- and community-based services. 

Of those giving care to adults, the vast majority (89 percent) are caring for a relative. Half of those receiving care are a parent or in-law, while 12 percent are a spouse or partner and 6 percent an adult child. The report does not indicate how many people are in Brown’s situation of caring for both a parent and an adult child, but it does state that 24 percent of people are caregiving for two or more people, a 6 percent rise since 2015. 

“Caregiving remains an activity that occurs among all generations, racial/ethnic groups, income or educations levels, family types, gender identities and sexual orientations,” the report states. However, a disproportionate amount of caregiving falls on women—61 percent of caregivers are women, with 54 percent of them age 50 and older and 46 percent between the ages of 18 and 49. 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that since February 2020, nearly 2 million women left the labor force, about 400,000 more than men, many of them to serve as caregivers. The last time women’s labor force participation was this low was in October 1998. According to Fortune magazine, “one of the main drivers of this disparity is the increased burden of unpaid care—shopping, cooking, cleaning, taking care of kids and parents in the household—which is disproportionately carried by women. Pre-COVID-19, women on average already did almost twice as much unpaid care compared to men. The COVID-19 crisis has added a very uneven addition onto an already unequal baseline.” 

In Franklin County, the caregiving conundrum affects both ends of the age spectrum, says county administrator Ken Wilson. Not only are younger citizens trying to balance career, child care and elder care, but grandparents, even great-grandparents, are also finding their once-empty nests filling back up again with minor children placed in their care due to serious socioeconomic challenges faced by those kids’ biological parents. It’s a trend the pandemic has magnified. 

“Imagine being 72 years old, and you have a 4-year-old and a 7-year-old that all of a sudden you become the primary guardian for,” Wilson says. “And if not for you, those children fall under the custody of Franklin County Children Services. Grandparents, great-grandparents want to keep those children together. They need caregiver support and respite services.” 

There are also a number of residents caring for children born with developmental disabilities. “Their children don’t necessarily get to the point where they can think of them going off to college—you might not ever have that empty nest,” Wilson says. 

In a lot of situations, Wilson says, the services the county offers through the Office on Aging, for instance, don’t have to make a huge financial impact to make a big difference for caregivers. “Just think about aging parents and the number of medical appointments that they need,” he says, touting county transportation services that shuttle clients to and from doctors’ offices. “That takes a tremendous burden off working children, who are trying to take time off work to keep up with all of these medical appointments.” 

Even with the programs available throughout the county, officials say public institutions can do more to ease the burden on caregivers nationwide. In May, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Community Living released $1.4 billion in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan for programs benefiting older Americans, including $145 million for the National Family Caregiver Support Program to assist family and informal caregivers. 

More support for caregivers is included in the proposed $3.5 trillion “human infrastructure” bill Democrats in Congress hope to pass through the reconciliation process later this year. “It’s a wonderful first step,” Brown says.

Left to right: John O'Grady, Brown and Kevin Boyce

Although Brown ceded her high-profile role in county government, she’s gained national attention for why she did it. People magazine ran an article about her decision, which Brown jests has made Epstein the “most famous person in her building.” It also shed some much-needed light on the role of caregivers in today’s society and on the struggles they face. “I think this is the time we need to start talking more about it and getting resources out there,” Brown says. She points out that resources exist right here in Franklin County to assist caregivers in many situations, “but it is not easy if you don’t know your way around.” 

Brown is quick to recognize that not everyone can do what she did. Following her announcement, people shared with her their own stories of the tough choices they had to make as caregivers. There is comfort in hearing that, she says, but it’s also a double-edged sword. 

“I am privileged that I have that option, that I have enough years in PERS [the Public Employees Retirement System] that I could do it. A lot of people don’t have that option, and that’s hard,” she says. She also recognizes that her family is fortunate to not depend on government funding for caregiver support. 

Traditional ideals of caregiving revolve around providing physical support—cooking, cleaning, driving, dressing, administering medication, shopping. But caregiving comes with a tremendous amount of emotional heavy lifting as well. 

That’s Marilyn Brown’s sweet spot. 

She splits caregiving for Epstein with her sister, Cindy Levine, who also lives in Cleveland. Given her close proximity, Levine takes on the errands, banking and medical responsibilities for their mother, while Brown manages the more psychological aspects. 

One tool she discovered to help her do this more effectively, especially from afar, is the GrandPad, a tabletlike device with large buttons and an intuitive interface that enables even the least technologically savvy seniors to video chat with family members without complex connectivity issues. It allows Brown to have “face-to-face” conversations with her mother using her own iPad every day—something she wasn’t doing when she was in office. 

“I haven’t really mastered it all yet, but I’m OK with what I’ve learned,” Epstein says of the GrandPad. “I’m able to see [Marilyn] when I call her. It’s absolutely wonderful, and I would recommend this for all grandparents.” 

At home, Eric Brown and their older daughter, Beryl Piccolantonio, take on the more “practical” aspects of caring for Daryn, who lives in the same Short North condo building as her parents. Daryn says her support system has made managing her condition—which is characterized by chronic pain and problems with the autonomic and autoimmune systems—easier and calls her mother a “major contributor.” 

“She always seems to know what I need to hear/see/do to get through something,” she writes via email. “My mom knows when I just need to vent, am looking for advice or suggestions or just need to be distracted for a bit. I know she would do anything to make me better, and often just talking to her or getting a hug from her helps.” 

Brown with her family in 2016, including daughters Daryn Brown (left) and Beryl Piccolantonio (middle) and husband Eric Brown, a former Ohio Supreme Court chief justice (second to left).

When Eric was undergoing treatment and recovery for throat cancer about seven years ago, his wife was a constant source of both physical and emotional support. “I was knocked out for over a year. I was just completely unable to do anything, and she was really helpful through all of that. And it wasn’t an easy year for us,” Eric says. 

And three years ago, while Eric was recovering from a difficult bout of pneumonia, his wife was there for him again. This time, she helped him gain weight and get nourishment through a seemingly endless supply of peanut butter milkshakes from Krema Nut Co. “It’s just a role that she’s good at and recognizes as important and valuable for her to be able to do it,” he says. 

Epstein believes that Brown is so skilled at meeting her family’s emotional needs because she needed caregiving when she was younger. When Brown was 5, she was hospitalized for many days to undergo extensive testing to determine the cause of bruising that developed all over her body. Doctors initially feared it was leukemia but later diagnosed her with a rare condition that usually occurs when the immune system attacks and destroys platelets. Children can develop it after a viral infection and usually recover without the need for treatments. 

Then, when she was 13, Brown ruptured a disc in her lower back and spent two years virtually immobile and in a lot of pain. She had the first of four surgeries to try to address the issue at age 15 and had to wear a “heavy metal and leather brace, which was clunky and was able to be seen while I was wearing clothes,” she recalls. “I was teased in junior high school quite a bit for having to wear the brace under my clothes.” 

She withstood two more less-than-successful surgeries throughout her life before a front/back lumbar fusion in 2003 finally helped to relieve her of the chronic pain she’d withstood for nearly 36 years. “She learned what it is to be laid up and to have problems and to overcome,” Epstein says. 

Brown agrees, but also chalks it up to behavior modeled by Epstein, who herself balanced caring for her own mother and children while working for 30 years as a secretary for a real estate management firm at a time when it was not common for women to work outside of the home. (Her boss was Eric Brown’s mother.) “We were the original sandwich generation,” Epstein says. “You get to a certain age and you know that you have certain responsibilities, and if left undone, there’s a big hole in your life.” 

Piccolantonio, 44, is keenly aware that there may come a time when caregiving responsibilities may land her squarely in her mother’s metaphorical shoes. Like Brown once did, Piccolantonio holds an elected office—she’s the president of the Gahanna-Jefferson Board of Education. She’s also a lawyer, wife and mother to three boys (ages 17, 15 and nearly 12). 

“I’m lucky that I had great role models to show me that you can balance all of those things, but also that it’s really hard,” she says. She adds that while the U.S. has made a lot of caregiving progress, more needs to be done to spread the responsibilities out more evenly. “Those are everybody’s responsibilities, not just for women,” she says. 

Eric Brown met Marilyn Epstein at a day camp in Mayfield, Ohio, when he was 7 and she was 6. On Marilyn’s 18th birthday, he proposed, and they were married a year and one week later. His wife of 48 years grew up painfully shy, Eric says, and it has been an honor to watch her become a confident, feisty woman who 15 years ago launched a campaign for public office against a longtime incumbent, Dewey Stokes, whom no one else would dare challenge—and won. Today, he admires the courage she showed in listening to her heart and stepping away from a job she loved to care for the people she loves. 

“I’m proud of her for all of the work she did and proud she made the difficult choice to follow her heart and do what is best for her and step down,” Daryn Brown says. “It isn’t always easy to walk away from something you enjoy, but it is important to listen to yourself and do what is best for you.” 

Franklin County’s motto is “Every Resident, Every Day.” Marilyn Brown coined that phrase while she was a commissioner. “I think it sort of embodies the spirit that she brought to this job. She worked to help our residents, not with just big policy, but as individuals,” says Tyler Lowry, director of public affairs for Franklin County. 

Now, that focus has turned to her family, and her mother is grateful. Shortly after Brown stepped down from her county job, she headed to Cleveland to make up for lost time with Epstein. As all caregivers must, Brown proved to be light on her feet. The joyful reunion with her mother culminated in an impromptu dance party, with the pair dancing the jitterbug on the balcony of Epstein’s apartment to big band music played by a DJ for residents of the complex. Brown hopes it’s the first of many to come.  

Help for Caregivers 

Franklin County offers many programs for caregivers of the elderly, nonbiological children and developmentally disabled family members. 

Office on Aging Caregiver Support Program 

Provides one-time assistance for a variety of families, from nonpaid caregivers of older adults (age 60+) who need home care assistance, to parents or relatives (age 55+) caring for an adult child with disabilities, to kinship caregivers (age 55+) caring full time for minor children 

Costs covered include caregiver counseling, kinship support, respite services, durable medical equipment and housing, including wheelchair ramp installations 

To enroll or learn more, call 614-525-6200. 

Franklin County Children’s Services Kinship Caregiver Program 

Provides benefits to kinship caregivers, relatives raising children whose parents aren’t able to care for them 

Costs covered include cribs, beds, clothing, housing and up to four months of child care 

For more information, call 614-341-6161 or email kinship@fccs.us

Board of Developmental Disabilities Family Resources Program (also known as “I Am Boundless”) 

Supports families who choose to keep their family member who has a developmental disability at home 

Provides respite services, counseling, parent training and financial assistance for adaptive equipment such as wheelchair ramps, while also offering parent/family support groups 

For additional information, call 614-844-3800 or visit  
iamboundless.org

Source: Franklin County Board of Commissioners 

This story is from the October 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.