Every summer, without fail, 14 women from the first graduating class (1962) of Yorktown High School in Arlington travel to the beach at Rehoboth for a good time and an affirmation of their friendship. They are an eclectic bunch--six still live in the Washington area; some are single again, others longtime or second-time married, each has mothered at least one child; among their ranks is a neurologist, an artist-photographer, a psychiatric nurse, a counselor, teachers and small-business owners.
Whether under the hot sun or pale moon, the women's beach talks always reflected the progression of their lives: boyfriends, husbands, child-rearing, careers and the empty-nest-revolving-door phenomenon. Then two summers ago they shared a new and pressing concern--the care of their aging parents. For days the women forgot all else and brainstormed on what it takes to be a loving and efficient caretaker. Among the questions they asked each other: How do you keep an ailing parent's (or aunt's/uncle's) dignity? How do you manage their diet and medicine? How do you know their needs if they can't express them? And how do you cope with your own fatigue and feelings of guilt?
"We identified with all the problems," says Alice MacDonald, of Herndon. "We knew these parents so well. They were the ones who opened their homes to us when we were in school together."
By the end of the beach week, the 14 women decided to write a book that would help other families. Not an easy feat with so many cooks in the kitchen. So Linda Rogers, former head of the math department at Potomac School in McLean, called on her teaching skills and assigned each friend a topic and deadline. The manuscript changed many times since then, but thanks to e-mail, their strong sense of organization and their own editing skills, the project was completed in two years.
Kathleen Hughes, publisher of Capital Books Inc. in Sterling, was personally drawn to the book because "I had helped my mother care for my grandparents, who died in their nineties," she says. "I was also intrigued by the friendship these women have. Most people do [the caretaking] alone. These women have each other for support, just as my mother had me for support."
"Fourteen Friends' Guide to Eldercaring" (Capital Books, $16.95) is a collection of inspirations, anonymous stories, practical tips, lists of resources and touching photographs that could have been taken from any family album. In the back of the book are pages for keeping vital information, such as medical insurance numbers and favorite restaurants that deliver. Surprisingly, Rogers says, some parents in their fifties are buying the book, filling out those back pages and then giving it to their children for future reference.
The book's first printing of 10,000 was sold out in six weeks. It's now in its second printing and Doubleday has bought the rights to the paperback, due out next year. With all this success and a whirlwind of local fund-raisers and national media events, the women appear to be tireless and even having fun.
There are enough of them to spread the news and share the hard work that publicity takes. Yes, there can be a problem in juggling 14 different schedules, and occasionally they show up in outfits that clash on camera and have to make a quick change. But there isn't any clash on the issue of elder caring.
"We may not always agree," says MacDonald, "but it's much too important to have critical dissension."
"In fact, this whole project has brought us closer together in what we do with our daily lives," says Carol Warner, who lives in Northwest Washington and is pictured on the cover of the book with her mother.
Are they surprised that their book has received national attention? "No," says Warner. "This is a national problem."
CAPTION: Fourteen friends: Bottom from left, Anne Smith Roadman, Carol Cummings Warner, Linda Staley Veatch, Judy Fulton Guerin; Middle row, Lee Lambie Pope, Karen Kelley Thalinger, Beth Sanders Milner, Alice Beckley MacDonald, Judy Sherwood McLeod. Top row, Joan Hunter Cooper, Linda Gilbertson Rogers, Joan Berkey Loftis, Karen Wulfsberg Strother, Brenda Jones Vieregg.
CAPTION: In its first printing of 10,000 copies, "Fourteen Friends' Guide to Eldercaring" sold out in six weeks.