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As a researcher in ethnogerontology, I was delighted when the opportunity arose to review this series of collected essays about women's experiences of caregiving. Having read any number of texts in the 'gerontology' and 'caregiver burden' literatures, and being cynically dismissive of a market swamped with 'self-help literature' for the children of aging parents, I found something remarkably unfeigned and reassuring in Dutiful Daughters. Although the feminist overtones of the book struck this reviewer as unnecessary and distracting (the book takes its title from Simone de Bouvoir's Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter), the book is well put together, and the 'penpersonship' of its female authors unmistakable. Such facts, do not however, explain why the book 'works'.
Edited by Jean Gould, Dutiful Daughters presents 22 diverse autobiographical accounts from women who serve or have served as the primary caretakers of an aging parent. Although the stories differ widely in theme, style, and content, they share a common honesty, and there appears no sense in which the authors have attempted to do other than tell their story. They have not offered some hokey 'love you Mum/Dad' account of their experiences, but have instead bared and offered of themselves the complex and unmitigated truth about the processes that occur when parents age and are unable to adequately care for themselves any longer.
To a young man whose parents are only manifesting the very beginnings of physical infirmity, the complexities of aging and the care of the aged, along with responsibility that these women clearly feel for their aging parents, were initially somewhat daunting. From the planning of funerals and the ascertaining of last wishes, the involved legal and financial complexities that accompany aging, to the huge sums of money involved in institutionalization and medical care, family disputes, and geographical relocations, aging and death are by no means tidy it seems. The conflicts engendered by the responsibility of elder care often seemed overwhelming and, in many cases, I found myself wondering whether I would persevere as conscientiously, as tenaciously, or as lovingly in the face of such odds.
Unsurprisingly then, most of the stories in Dutiful Daughters directly or indirectly end up addressing the relationships the authors have, and have had, with their parent. On the part of the caregivers, the reader is sometimes left with a clear impression of guilt, of lost opportunities, and of fear that previous hurts will never be resolved. Other times however, fundamental revelations and positive changes occur, as in Patricia Gozemba's Cookie and Me. In this story the author experiences an 'awakening' of sorts when she discovers that her aging father never shared her mother's distaste for her lesbianism. So while the relationship between an aging parent and their children are near-inevitably difficult, the imminence of death also means that they contain the potential for immensely fulfilling resolutions and forgivenesses.
So while it is not a text on the psychology of aging, Dutiful Daughters is a powerfully psychological work. Through it we are inevitably introduced to the physical world of doctors, lawyers, 24-hour care, suppositories, Medicare, adult diapers, and walkers. Moreover, we are also guided through the embarrassment and frustrations of old age, the loss of dignity, independence and agency, and the universal struggles that accompany the perception of the end. The profound role reversal in physical caring mirrors the more general changes in dependence and need. And yet there is something remarkably fitting about the full-circle of physical caring and dependency. It would in fact be ironically pleasing were it clearly not such a source of conflict and distress. In Katherine Morton's Autonomy of the Hovercraft for example, the author attempts to confiscate her mother's gun. She holds it above her head, as if in a generationally unusual game of 'keep away', while her mother, "frail, tiny, quavery, and furious" insists that the gun is vital to her protection. In many ways it seems that the struggle between autonomy and dependence is no less traumatic in a caregiver-parent relationship than is typical during adolescence when the roles are reversed. Some parents to not settle gracefully into old age, but desperately resist, deploying a lifetime's worth of psychological manipulation to maintain a semblance of control and a sense of self. Others however find such transitions more agreeable, as in Matha Henry's The Decisive Match, where the baton of physical superiority is generously passed between mother and daughter.
Dutiful Daughters is a wonderful book for people of all ages. It appears at a time when the governmental agencies are re-assessing their approach to the understanding of aging, and provides a much-needed autobiographical complement to the ongoing work of the social sciences. The works are beautifully written; heart-wrenchingly honest, thoughtful, and evocative. Together the chapters underscore the importance of relationships and ritual, and skillfully depict the search for meaning and dignity that occur as we age and prepare to die (and live on). There were times when I could not identify with all the stories portrayed in this work and, on occasion, I was glad of it. Nonetheless, despite the struggles and pain evident in this book, its reading left me strangely optimistic and comforted. Aging and death appear as central to life as living itself. Lest we forget.
Having recently completed his dissertation in New Zealand, Nathan Consedine, Ph.D., is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Studies of Ethnicity and Human Development at Long Island University in New York. His many research interests include the development of evolutionary-functionalism, particularly as applied to emotion, consciousness and personality theory, as well as considering the relationships between emotions, aging, and health in an ethnic context. In his 'spare' time, he writes on Internet methods in psychological research.