While caring for her aging, ailing parents, Judith found peace and acceptance by writing about her experience; she shares her recollections of the six years she spent as a caregiver in her newly released memoir and advice book.
Tell us a little about yourself…
I grew up in Orlando, at the time an unremarkable small Florida town—until Disney World moved in my senior year of high school. Overnight, the whole place seemed to change. Heavy traffic and lots of tourists became the norm. That was 44 years ago and the place is still growing.
I’ve worked all my life, starting with babysitting jobs at twelve. Following high school graduation, I felt compelled to keep working rather than go to college. Always an avid reader, my education, while not formal, covered a wide array of subjects that interested me: religion, history, education, philosophy, psychology, and art.
Approaching 40, I was feeling that I’d missed out by not going to college like my younger siblings had done, so I decided to attend classes at my local community college, then pursued a BA in Psychology from St. Leo University, which offered most classes on MacDill Air force Base, primarily for enlisted personnel. I went to school after work and on weekends for a few years, graduating at 45. I remember, one night, walking up the steps to a portable classroom and trying the door, which was locked. When I turned around, the kids were all lined up behind me waiting to get in. I said, “I’m not the teacher…I’m a student, too!
The irony is that teaching has always been in my blood. I was involved in adult literacy for 15 years through the Hillsborough Literacy Council. After tutoring students, I learned how to train other volunteers to teach new adult readers and writers. We used a method called Laubach Way to Reading, which is a phonetic approach to teaching adults basic literacy skills. We also had supplemental ways of encouraging reading and writing with a focus on stories written by students. That totally grabbed me, so I began to do more research on that method of teaching using Language Experience Stories. It made sense to me that when students are taught using material that is personally relevant to them, it greatly enhances learning.
There is nothing that thrills me more than seeing that “aha” moment of understanding cross a person’s face when something clicks; honestly, it’s food for the soul. At one point, I thought of making a career in the adult literacy field and actually went back to school for my Master’s in Education from Indiana University, Bloomington. I completed the coursework during nights and weekends, which took me 24 months—I graduated at age 50! I loved every minute of it, particularly researching and writing papers. I also did some assisting and observing at a local 2nd-grade classroom. I came home and went to sleep at 8 PM every night!
During the day, I work as Managing Director for a consultant firm. When time allows, I love discovering thrift store treasures, cooking for friends, and working on art projects. I live in Tampa, Florida with my fur child, Addie Jacob, who has assured me that I have a promising future making cat toys if my next act doesn’t work out.
When did you start to think about doing something new?
I’ve been a writer since the age of five with my first “I’m running away, you love my brother more than me” letter to my parents. I never got out the door because I spent too long decorating the letter with snowmen and houses belching curlicued chimney smoke, and dinner was on the table. My mother told me she’d save the letter for the next time I wanted to leave, and my dad gave me a Tastykake cupcake from his private stash. That’s when it dawned on me that writing was powerful stuff!
When I was a child, my fantasy jobs were shelving books at the local library, and working in the gift wrap department of Jordan Marsh because I loved all those fun package toppers. I actually did get to work at the public library for a few years after high school.
Since then, I’ve continued to write down my thoughts and experiences. It has become the best way for me to process what’s going on in my life. I’ve never put my work out there for others to see, however, because I wasn’t confident that it was good enough, despite encouragement from a great many people.
In 2007, I began helping to care for my elderly parents, after my mom, at 85, was diagnosed with breast cancer, and my dad, at 87, had a bad fall. That six-year experience was life changing; after they passed away, I decided to write down everything I learned during that time. Not only was it a way to share valuable information that other caregivers could benefit from, it was also a means for coming to terms with the fact that I wasn’t the perfect caregiver or daughter.
The catalyst that booted me out of my insecurity about publishing my work was deciding to write about my caregiving experience because of the strong belief that it could help others in similar situations. The unexpected gift was that it also allowed me to process my grief and to dig deeper into my relationship with both parents.
What is your next act?
At the age of 62, I am the author of The Dutiful Daughter’s Guide to Caregiving: A Practical Memoir, released on June 22, 2015. I was honored to be chosen by the U.S. Department of Women’s Health for their December 2014 Spotlight Interview on being a caregiver, and have also had some articles and interviews posted on some excellent websites dedicated to caregiving. You can find them here:
Offering support and guidance, bringing new ideas to people or ways to make their lives a little easier, that’s what I’m put here to do. That, and making people laugh. I find humor is a powerful tool for dealing with life challenges; sometimes it has saved me when nothing else could.
So, whether it’s sharing a caregiving experience, holding a seminar on writing a legacy letter for family and friends, or facilitating my writer’s group for caregivers, everything I do is connected and speaks to my core principles.
How do you balance your day job with your writing?
I write nights and weekends. My writing life is intertwined with the rest of my life because I’m always jotting down ideas for new pieces. I actually have a file on my computer entitled, “Titles for Books I Haven’t Written Yet.” I wish I’d bought stock in sticky notes. They’re all over my car and my office!
Tell us more about the writers’ groups you run and the seminars you give…
When I realized that writing a caregiving book to help others had actually helped me personally, I decided to start an expressive writing group for caregivers, in my town. We meet once a month at a public library branch that supports the need for this kind of writing. It’s been almost a year since I rolled it out and it has become one of the loves of my life. It’s all women, although men are invited to attend. We come from all over the globe. Our backgrounds are diverse. We’re caring, or have cared for, spouses, parents, friends, children, or grandchildren. We’re married, single, or widowed. We come together, share our writing from the prompt I hand out at the end of the prior meeting, and we leave always saying the same thing—how good it feels to be in the presence of others who will laugh with us, cry with us, and empathize with our story. I want to hold more of these meetings in local hospitals and other venues where caregivers spend their time.
One of the presentations I always find gratifying is about sharing the importance of writing an ethical will or legacy letter for family and friends. We all understand the importance of writing a Last Will and Testament, which distributes financial assets and material possessions, and a Living Will, which spells out your treatment preferences regarding end-of-life care. Both contain precise, legal terms to ensure compliance with your wishes at the appropriate time.
What’s missing is the intimate connection that comes from a document written in your own words and your own voice. As a means of providing a spiritual inheritance, it shares personal history, wisdom gained, guiding beliefs, and the love you feel for family and friends. It may even be used to more deeply express the decisions outlined in a legal Will or Health Care Directive.
I always have the audience pick a few questions out of a bag to think about and share with the group. It could be something like, “Which person or persons had the most influence on you as a child?” “What brings you the most happiness?” “What have you learned from your parents, grandparents, partner or children?” These are questions people rarely think about. So, when they are given the time to reflect on their personal history, sometimes the answers surprise them. One woman, when asked who her hero was, shared that it was her son, who was developmentally disabled. She’d never thought about him before in that context, but when she realized that every morning he gets up and faces the world, knowing that it will be a struggle, she is so in awe of his courage.
How hard was it to take the plunge and write your book? How did you figure out which way to go?
Taking the plunge was almost anticlimactic. Writing this book about caring for my mom and dad has felt pre-ordained to me—like the natural next step in my life. Of course, I’m a planner and a pragmatist, so none of this was done off the cuff.
I lined up an expert author, Marion Roach Smith, to read my book draft and offer support and suggestions. I hired a talented designer, Julie Davis of Mindzai Communications, to do my cover and interior work. I contacted a professional, Margaret Roach, who could help me figure out some marketing strategies both before and after the book launch. I also continue to read everything I can get my hands on about writing, publishing, and marketing my work.
I’m publishing this book under my own imprint, Broadcloth Books since I’ll be doing some additional books in the future. It’s the best way I know to maintain control over the entire publishing process including when my release will be. I chose that name because broadcloth is durable and practical—qualities that I admire.
How supportive were your family and friends?
My parents always supported and encouraged my writing ability. Before my mother passed away, I told her about The Dutiful Daughter’s Guide to Caregiving. She was thrilled; I’m just sorry she’s not here to be part of its release. My friends have been telling me to put my writing out there for years. Even my ex-husband is excited about this new career of mine!
How are you marketing your book?
Several friends are doing launch parties where I’m reading a piece from the book and talking about how I came to write it. I always give a copy of the book to the host/hostess as a gift. In fact, I’ve given several books as gifts to friends and family all over the country. They in turn, are spreading the word. I sense that this book will be sold primarily through word-of-mouth.
There are some talks lined up with women’s groups in my area. I’ve made several excellent connections just by leaving responses on websites or on Facebook posts and linking them to a profile I’ve developed. Marketing really is about creating relationships and being generous and sincere with compliments, especially with other writers in my genre. I want to support their work by letting them know what their books have meant to me. One of the sources I’ve started using is HARO – Help a Reporter Out. It’s a free subscription service that sends emails three times a day from reporters and writers who are looking for input on a variety of subjects. I’ve already provided a quote to one writer with a large following whose piece will show up soon on a popular website for moms.
What challenges do you encounter? Do you ever think about giving up?
There continue to be challenges, but that’s all part of the learning process. I still wonder sometimes if my writing is good enough, and it has been gratifying to learn that other writers/authors have similar doubts. Apparently, we’re a very insecure bunch!
Time management is another challenge. There aren’t enough hours in the day for everything that needs to get done. I said to a friend the other day, “Gosh, why is there so much writing involved in promotion? We both laughed, but it’s true. I feel a deep sense of responsibility not to put just anything out there in promotional letters, articles, and on Facebook. My words are a reflection of who I am, so everything I write has to be genuine.
For me, writing is almost the easy part compared to marketing my work. Women are often brought up to believe that self-promotion is unladylike, but it is possible to do it without selling your soul. I keep reminding myself of the purpose for this book—to be of service to others. That makes it easier. And I love connecting with new people and hearing their stories.
I only want to give up writing at about 2 a.m., when I wake up thinking about a sentence I should have included in a recent piece for submission. Seriously, this is my life’s work, so I’m in it till the lights go out for good.
What have you learned about yourself through this experience?
I’m still learning things about myself. While writing the book, I realized how deeply rooted my connection was with both my parents, and that connection remains incredibly strong. When I write, it’s often with them in mind.
I came to realize that, even though I have always been somewhat prudent and practical in my decision-making, I’ve also done some pretty ballsy things: I co-owned two Laundromats in my 40s; I went back to school at 45; I packed up and moved to Los Angeles at the age of 52 and took a job as a Study Manager in the UCLA Department of Public Health. It was for a dietary study and, although I had no training in Public Health, I had a load of experience dealing with all types of people, working with budgets, and again, a desire to learn. Then my parents became ill, so I moved back to Florida two years later to help care for them.
What advice do you have for women seeking to reinvent themselves in midlife and for would-be writers?
I think for so many women, reinvention starts with tapping into those things that bring them joy and fulfillment, and finding a way to integrate those activities more deeply into their lives. The reinvention takes place when they decide that their goals and dreams are just as important as anyone else’s, be it a spouse, partner, or other family member. You never know what opportunities will come your way until you send your desires into the world. That may sound a little “woo-woo,” but it’s true. I’ve experienced this over and over again and I’m grateful every day for the people that have reached out to support me.
“Do your homework first” would be my greatest advice. Having dreams and goals is the place to start, but you have to ask tons of questions, and do your research. I also think being flexible is important. Sometimes, we have a single-minded focus on what we imagine for ourselves. As it happens, there may be more than one way to get where we want to go, so be open to opportunities that may not, on the surface, sound like they connect with your goals.
There’s a saying that goes, “We think we have all the time in the world. We don’t.” So even if you have to start small, just start.
My advice for someone who wants to be a writer is, first of all, to write! And to write well, you also need to read. Take some classes. Join a writing group. Attend conferences. It’s really about stepping out of your comfort zone.
What resources do you recommend for writers?
Depending on what kind of writing you want to do, there are many resources available. I write primarily humorous life observations and practical non-fiction. You’ll always find an element of memoir in my writing, even when it’s a how-to piece.
For writing and publishing:
Marion Roach Smith is the author and memoir instructor who helped me fine-tune my book. She teaches memoir writing in upstate New York, does private consultations, and has a website where she features helpful writing tips and spotlights other writers. In addition, she has written an excellent book entitled, The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life, which is one of my favorites.
Other favorites include Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, 2nd Edition, and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.
There’s a Facebook group called The Women of Midlife. They’re an amazing group of women who have their own blogs on a variety of subjects, and they provide support and encouragement to each other. They’ve been a great resource for me.
Beyond Your Blog provides opportunities for paid writing gigs.
She Writes is another good site that offers helpful articles and a supportive community for women writers.
More Magazine runs some great reinventions stories.
Because of the authors’ gorgeous writing and subjects that resonate with me, I’ve also found inspiration in:
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Little Bee: A Novel by Chris Cleave
Robert Fulghum’s funny touching writing, such as All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves: A Novel by Karen Joy Fowler
A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas
This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Anne Patchett
What resources do you recommend for caregivers?
What’s next for you?
For this next phase of my life, I’m setting the stage to dedicate myself to writing once I hit retirement age. To that end, I am focused on developing writing and public speaking career. Being a first-time author isn’t a roadmap to financial security or stardom unless you’ve written Fifty Shades of Grey or the Harry Potter series. But if I didn’t begin now, I never would.
I also have several ideas that are all connected to the work I’m doing now. That includes creating a line of greeting cards, and writing a few more books. Maybe even a Dutiful Daughter series.
I have also become very involved in the cause of Senior Hunger since I began caring for my parents. In a country with such riches, it boggles my mind that so many of our elderly go without food. Hunger has become a serious issue nationwide for seniors who live alone, have limited mobility, and no support system to rely on. In 2010, 8.3 million Americans over 60 faced a lack of food, a 78% increase vs. ten years prior. These are not faceless numbers. They represent our mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles. I support them in the names of both my parents, through our local Meals on Wheels program, an affiliate of the national organization.
Contact Judith Henry at Judith@judithhenry.com
Visit my website to receive a free chapter of my book and find out about upcoming events and offerings.