The WVFC Special Focus on Caregiving launches with Part One of a three-part interview with Gail Sheehy, author of the new book Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence. Here, Gail talks about how the book came about.

We understand that the inspiration for the book was your own experience as longtime caregiver for your husband, magazine editor Clay Felker. But how and when did the book itself begin?

I always write books to understand what I’m living through, if it seems to have a universality. So it had to be in my mind in the last, oh, six months of my husband’s life. He died two years ago in July. So I outlined it for a whole summer. And then I couldn’t write one word until January of 2009.

But I had been interviewing and making videos in the year before that, because I was the AARP Caregiving Ambassador all through 2009. I’d been doing the filming in 2008. Within a month after my husband died, I had to be on the road interviewing people. That kept the pain of loss at some distance. It also was a very absorbing process. It was a good way to spend the first six months of mourning, but it didn’t start the grieving process.

The grieving process started when I started writing the book and going over my journals. I had kept journals throughout most of the journey, really just to remind myself where I’d been and to try to keep myself on track as to where I was going. A lot of people do that. It’s very helpful. It’s so easy to get lost.

Aside from your own experience, what sort of research did you do? How long did it take?

I actually started it three years ago. I had a website up, and I had an interactive video questionnaire for caregivers. All the questions were laid out, and they could just type in their answers right on my website.  I got over 3,000 responses. I called and talked over the phone to probably about 150 of those people, and read the other ones. That was the basic research. In all, including the AARP research, I interviewed in person about 150 people.

When I started with AARP, I called a lot of the people who had sent in their stories. We selected four cities. First, I made a trip to each city to interview about a half a dozen people and select one or two we could film there.

Even now I have a questionnaire on my website. Because people really do like to tell their stories.

What was that like for you, connecting with other caregivers and hearing their stories?

It was very helpful. As I think it is helpful for everybody to share stories. Because the biggest enemy is feeling alone, and then being alone. Being in isolation. And that was the number one… I wouldn’t even say complaint, because people just thought that’s what they had to do. And when people connect with other caregivers, by talking to one or going to a Powerful Tools for Caregivers course, or going online and finding that there are websites, or social media out there—then it’s part of life, and it normalizes it. You’re not alone. And the most generous people and the best supporters are other experienced caregivers. They want to help, they want to pass it on. And they can take an awful lot of the fear out of the process.

Could you talk a little about women as caregivers, and why this book is particularly important for our readers?

Most women say that don’t see themselves as caregivers—that is, playing a professional-level role. They will often say to me, well that’s just what we do as daughters, just what you do as a wife. And particularly women who are past menopause, or in it, are just expected to move on to caregiving for whoever in the family gets sick first or complains the loudest. And often to take care of in-laws.

You know, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Because caregiving is actually quite a privilege, and many people find that it is a time when they are most intimate with a family member—even one who they might have been distant from for a while, or estranged from. But the real danger is that they believe they are the only ones to do it. That they have to take it all on.

Next: The Labyrinth, Deep Breathing, and the Eight Stages of the Caregiving Process.

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  • Despr8caregiver May 23, 2010 at 8:08 pm

    I am loving this book. After reading two sections, it is already helpful to us as caregivers of my 91 year old father. Gail Sheehy has been a guiding light for me since the publication of the original Passages.