Susan Morse reads from her book "The Habit."

by Sue Ann Rybak

Anyone who has ever been a caretaker knows how stressful and overwhelming it can be. To maintain your sanity, you have to keep your sense of humor. Now imagine being a caretaker with three teenagers, a dog, two cats, hot flashes and a husband, the actor David Morse, whose job requires him to be away from home for months at a time and – oh yeah – a mother who is a nun. One can either slowly lose his or her marbles or do what Morse did – write a book.

About 25 attendees gathered on March 8 to hear first-time author Susan Morse discuss her memoir “The Habit” at the Epiphany Chapel on the Willow Grove campus of Springside Chestnut Hill Academy. Jane Hamilton, author of “The Caregiver’s Guide to Self-Care” moderated the evening. Anne Anspach, school store manager at SCH had invited Morse to speak.

“I knew Susan from her days here as a parent of two CHA boys and a Springside girl,” Anspach said. “I read her book, which is funny and beautifully written. Many of us are taking care of parents and children, so her book really struck a chord with me and many of my friends. I thought she could be a great resource to our community, so I invited her to do the book reading.”

Morse’s memoir paints a picture of her unique relationship with her mother, “Ma,” who at 85 became an Orthodox nun – Mother Bridget. Her book “The Habit” gives the reader a narrative window to the universal mother-daughter paradox. Morse struggles to stay sane as she takes care of her eccentric, artistic, strong-willed mother.

The story resonates with many caretakers who are part of that “sandwich generation.” Morse, who already has her hands full raising three teenagers, suddenly finds herself navigating the maze of HMOs, PPOs, Medicare, supplemental health insurance, Rxs, doctors, hospital staff and social workers. In order to maneuver through the nightmare of the healthcare system, she first had to learn the secret code or jargon of health care professionals.

Morse read the following excerpt from her book, titled “Plug Pulling for Dummies”:

ME (on the phone to Colette): Ma had Medicare with a state Medigap when she first got to the Nork. Then I switched her to an HMO. LTC worked out great once we approved her ADLs were messed up. Unfortunately, that nightmare Alf experiment was a total fiasco. So Ma had to go home and that’s why we didn’t want her to do the TATA. Now that the co-pays have gone up so much, I’ve decided to switch her out of ESD to Medicare with an Arp Medigap, which may help the Arnack at Sniff to get her PT and OT paid for along with her OxyIR and the other Rxs. What we should be thankful for is that her mini-mental was almost perfect.

Colette: What?

The audience smiled and nodded knowingly as she read. Many of the audience members were part of the “sandwich generation” – they understood the difficulties of raising a family and attempting to care for an elderly parent at the same time.

A classic element of the book is the almost debilitating ordeal of being the primary care taker of an elderly parent. Morse has always had an unusual relationship with her mother. She was the “special” child. In the book, she describes “special” as being “’her mother’s frazzled caretaker, a role that continued into adulthood.’”

Morse was asked when she decided to write the book. She said that early on she began sending email messages to her siblings, who were out of town, about what they were “going through everyday.”

“At the end of each day, I had all these notes that I had taken from doctors,” Morse said. “It was so overwhelming to continually go through it. I felt this incredible urge to give them [her family] something. It was a very cleansing thing. They [her siblings] kept cheering me on.”

She added that the book allowed her “to make some sense out of it.”

Morse said her sister encouraged her to write about their mother and her extraordinary life.

“And so I did,” she said. “And what was so amazing was that our story – with all its conflicts and resolutions – ended up being therapeutic. It was an amazing, miraculous story, and it actually ended up being quite healing.”

An attendee asked, “What impact did this have on your siblings?”

“In the book, there is a lot of family history, and it’s all from my perspective,” Morse said. “So, it has really opened up a kind of dialogue for us about what we remember or how we felt about things. I think it has been kind of healing.”

The original title of the book was “Nobody dies at the end of this book” because Morse said friends kept asking when she was going to publish the book – after her mother died? She explained that she couldn’t even conceive of the thought of her mother’s death in relationship to the book. She wanted her mother to be part of the celebration.

A friend, who is an author, suggested the title: “The Habit.”

“[In the book,] I talk about my relationship with my mother,” Morse said. “I was the caretaker from early on, so I had to struggle against the habit of that.”

And, of course, Morse noted, her mother literally wears a habit.