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Lorene Cary writes of ‘Ladysitting’ with her nana

Alicia Colombo

By Jay Nachman

After her “Nana” died in 2008, writer Lorene Cary needed time to absorb her grief and the complex, life-changing experience.

When Cary was ready, she went to work and wrote “Ladysitting: My Year with Nana at the End of Her Century,” which was published in 2019. Cary turned the memoir about caring for her grandmother at the end of her life into a 30-minute opera and a play, “Ladysitting,” which was commissioned by the Arden Theatre in Philadelphia and held its world premiere at the theater in January.

Her motivation to write the book was to “understand loss. I’m at the point in my life, I am a senior citizen. I need to understand and accept death. That is what I was learning.”

In addition to “Ladysitting,” Cary, 67, wrote the memoir “Black Ice,” three novels, a book for young readers, and the play “My General Tubman.” The Southwest Philadelphia native also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and currently lives in the Graduate Hospital area.

As a child, Cary would visit her Nana and Pop-pop, Lorene, and Earl Jackson, at their home in West Collingswood, NJ, on weekends. There, Cary, a self-described introvert as a child, could do as she pleased, whether making up stories, playing the piano, digging in the yard, or listening to her nana’s classical, spiritual, and jazz records. “I was perfectly happy, really happy, to be on my own in their lovely house, indoors and out. It was a cozy haven for me. I loved it.”

When she was older, her grandparents would take her to movie musicals. Then, the following weekend, the cast album from the play they had seen would be waiting for Cary to play over and over until she knew it by heart.

Nana worked until she was 94 as a trustee of a small real estate parcel in South Philly. She lived in her West Collingswood home until she was 99. After being hospitalized with a bladder infection, she moved in with Lorene and her family.

Cary felt it was her duty to take care of her, but also, she had the ability to do so. There was, at times, contention between a strong-willed woman and her caretaker granddaughter. “Nana loved living on her own, so living in someone else’s house—that was difficult for her,” Cary said.

Ladysitting became the way they referred, “in front of her, rather than behind her back, to the arrangements we’d make so someone was staying with her.” Once, Nana said with derision, “someone has to come babysit me.”

“No, no, no, it’s not babysitting; it’s ladysitting,” Cary replied. “We all laughed at that, and it allowed her to save face about her increased debility and dependence, which galled her. Any dependence just galled her. So, it was our way of not humiliating her.”

In her book “Ladysitting,” Cary shares stories of five generations of her African American family, while weaving a narrative of her complicated relationship with Nana ― a fiercely independent and often stubborn woman whose family fled the Jim Crow South, Cary captures the ruptures, love, and forgiveness that can occur in family as she bears witness to her grandmother’s vibrant life.

What did Cary learn from her year of caretaking?

“For other caretakers my advice would be to seek out and accept every bit of help you can find and to do it before you run yourself into the ditch,” she said. “And to keep in mind that things in caretaking will go wrong. And particularly if you’re caring for someone who is not simply disabled but is dying. We have a society that says if the person dies, if the person isn’t well, it’s because the caretaker has done something wrong. It’s not. And figure out how to get enough help so that you don’t feel as if you’re doing something wrong as the person weakens. It’s very important.”

Philadelphia Corporation for Aging provides resources, information and training to assist caregivers through its Caregiver Support Program. For information, call the PCA Helpline at 215-765-9040 or go to

Jay Nachman is a freelance writer in Philadelphia who tells stories for a variety of clients.

Categories: Elder Care Milestones eNews


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