'Caregivers' offers advice, comfort from the front lines

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By Terri Schlichenmeyer, Special to The Gazette
Wednesday, May 14, 2014

For better, for worse. You promised that once, and you meant it.

For richer, for poorer was OK, too. You'd get through it together.

Over the years, that's how it happened—until you got to “in sickness and in health.”

You hoped it would be more health, less sickness, but life doesn't always turn out like that. In the new book “The Caregivers” by Nell Lake, you see how one group of spouses (and children) deals with sickness.

Although her grandmother had never been demonstrative, Lake knew the woman loved her. Hildegard was “elegant, German, unadorned, restrained” and also independent, strong-willed and active. When she found out that some pain she was having could mean cancer, she committed suicide.

Hildegard possessed dignity and grace while alive, Lake writes, but she missed the “intimacy that may come with tending and being tended to” while dying. Fear of that part of life dogged Lake, so she decided to immerse herself in a group of people living in that shadow. She joined a support group for caregivers of those with dementia and Alzheimer's.

Daniel, 88, suffered from recurring cancer while caring for his much-younger wife. She was bi-polar and had myriad other health issues.

William married the love of his life shortly after World War II. He then watched helplessly as she was overtaken by dementia.

Liz struggled with guilt for putting her abusive husband in a veterans home due to his Alzheimer's.

Inga, who had cared for and lost a daughter, aunts and both parents, was the caretaker for her partner, Louise, who was recovering from multiple surgeries.

Rufus had tended a friend who had died, but he kept returning to the group.

Penny, the most prominent voice in the book, cared for her mother with humor, good-natured teasing, frustration and the sometimes-surprising support of her siblings.

Throughout the year, group members endured sadness and loss, but also moments of beauty. Taboo subjects were tackled, and friendships formed. Through it all, they learned to grieve someone who was gone in one way but present physically.

I struggle with what to say about “The Caregivers” because, truthfully, it made me so profoundly sad.

Still, I know readers can find comfort and advice in what Lake has to say. She makes each of her subjects come alive, so that when they're stricken, we feel it—and there's a lot of that in this book.

What made me stick with it is the wistful sweetness mixed with resignation and gotta-keep-moving outrage. Lake's ability to repeatedly remind us of the former is like a gentle slap. The latter, however, is why you'll keep reading.

Baby boomers looking at the future—or people already in caregiving positions—should read this book with tissues handy. I'm not sure I'd call it light reading, but “The Caregivers” might make you feel better.

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