We are legion, we members of the middle-aged, mostly female caregiver corps, and we work our extra jobs behind the scenes. Since many of us can’t seem to summon up the energy to join that support group our friends keep suggesting to us, it’s quite canny of writer Nell Lake to provide one in book form.
In researching “The Caregivers,” Lake attended a weekly hospital-based support group for family members charged with looking after parents, spouses and siblings suffering from the usual thieves of old age: Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and cancer. In telling their stories here, the author does a credible job of capturing the anger, exhaustion, money woes and fear of the future faced by the folks she characterizes as “private heroes.”
And heroics they perform, on a daily basis — feeding, tending, watching over and attending seemingly endless medical appointments. Through their grueling stories, laced with a black humor that leavens them, we enter the slowly narrowing worlds of Penny, whose mother has Alzheimer’s disease; Daniel, whose much younger wife is bipolar and suffers from multiple unspecified health problems; William and Liz, whose spouses have dementia, and Inga, whose partner’s medical ills could fill “The Merck Manual.”
As the year progresses, additional members — Claire, Katherine, Sarah, Karen and more — join the support group, which is where the trouble starts. By the middle of the book I felt as if I were mentally juggling more characters than a Russian novel, a distraction from the people and their problems. One of those character list cheat sheets might be in order here.
That confusion aside, Lake tells a good tale, and — just like an actual support group — provides comfort in the time-honored form of shared experience: Ah, you’ve been through that, too. One caregiver, whose husband’s mind is going, speaks for many when she says, “I’m angry at being alone and not alone — at not being released.”
Toward the story’s end there’s even a happy outcome, when a dedicated group member founds a hospital resource center for people with dementia and their caregivers. Most readers will agree that center will provide a much-needed refuge for this steadfast crew. Without that kind of support, says one caregiver, “If my mother is alive in five years, I’m either going to be dead, a Buddha or a saint.”
Lynette Lamb is a Minneapolis writer who works as an editor at Macalester College.