Dr. Grace Rochford, the first woman to graduate from Tufts University School of Medicine, went on to become one of the first female surgeons in Boston. She was my great-aunt, and she raised my father, but while she had a terrific career in medicine, she talked me out of going to medical school after I was accepted to the University of Vermont.
I didn't need much convincing at the time, because my other option was business school at Berkeley. In the course of conversation, however, she pointed out that people who are seriously ill can adopt personality traits that make them entirely different from who they were when they were healthy. Not all of the seriously ill act as contented and as grateful as the "English Patient." I thought about this when reading a Jane Brody New York Times column about a new book by Diana B. Denholm, "The Caregiving Wife's Handbook."
Apparently, there are more than 40 million women in this country who are primary caregivers for a sick person. To be fair, there should be a "caregiving husband's" companion piece, because clearly there is some mirror image of the situation. However, the fact that women live longer than men would tip the scales to create a higher number of women in the role.
Today's healthy couples, retired or still working, will inevitably have to come to terms with one being the caretaker of the other. That could be as many as 60 million people as we speak. That's just spouses.
Parents and other family members may also need extended care. I know, from my own experience with aging parents, that anyone with a serious illness needs a tremendous amount of attention. It's impossible to put a price tag on the care that family members provide. Assisted living facilities offer some of what family caregivers can offer, but the cost for most people is out of the question.
Practically speaking, the circumstances don't allow for an ailing patient to be anywhere other than at home with their spouse -- for better or for worse.
The book offers advice about how to adapt to the role of caregiver without becoming codependent. In other words, it suggests ways that the caretaker can approach new problems constructively so that they (the caregivers) continue to have a life. A few of the anecdotes in the book spell out ways that people have confronted problems and dealt with them effectively.
Much of the book is based on interviews with women who are experiencing the caregiving role.
The author herself is a doctor whose husband, after years of good health, then suffered from a full spectrum of health problems -- colon cancer, kidney failure, infections, heart failure and Parkinson's -- to mention just a few. All this over 11 years of marriage. It stands to reason that Denholm can write the book on caregiving.
Serious illness contributes to feelings of anger, helplessness and depression. The book "goes there" and explores the reasons for why personalities can change dramatically.
Finally, it offers a list of 50 ways to alleviate what can be a difficult challenge. Even if we don't need it yet, it's a book that we should have in our bookcase or on our Kindle. The odds are good that it will come in handy someday.