[Pauline] Boss, an emeritus professor of family social science — the study of families and close relationships — chose the place seven years ago because her husband’s declining health had made it difficult for him to climb the stairs of their house near the University of Minnesota, where she taught. His decline was gradual. In 2000, he was using a cane; by last year, when he was 88, rheumatoid arthritis had rendered him unable to walk. Vascular issues resulted in open wounds on his legs.
Despite his illness, the couple maintained a semblance of normalcy, entertaining guests, going for drives and attending the theater, until last year, when the pandemic isolated them in the apartment. Then, their only visitors were home health aides; once they left, Boss would take care of her husband, changing the dressing on his bandages and administering his medications.
“It sneaks up on you,” Boss said of the burden of caregiving and its attendant emotional struggles. She felt a range of contradictory feelings: gratitude for their time together, grief over the loss of their old rhythms and anxiety at the inevitability of his death. Boss was also confused about her role in their partnership. Once solely his wife, she was now also his caregiver.
With her husband’s drawn-out illness, Boss’s life came to resemble the cases she’d spent her career studying. Nearly 50 years ago, as a doctoral student in child development and family studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she researched families with at least one member who was either physically or psychologically absent.
Freudian notions of grieving have taught us that mourning is a process leading to detachment — a sort of closure. Boss finds this model misleading, perilously bound up in the way Americans conceptualize themselves. In a new book published this month, “The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic and Change,” she writes that the United States is a place that privileges narratives of self-sufficiency and rationality.
What my research participant made clear to me that day is that the lack of robust and accessible social programs for long-term care is merely a...