Song for Rosaleen

By Pip Desmond

Review by Philippa Fletcher - Policy Advisor, Alzheimers NZ

So much of life is about letting go. This book traces the labyrinthine journeys of Rosaleen the mother, letting go of life via vascular dementia; of Pip the daughter, letting go of the mother she knew; and of Pip the author, letting go of her care partner role as she translates it into the written word. For me, reading the book began as a professional task and ended as a gentle reflection on life itself and its meaning and purpose. 

The book centres on a family’s experience of dementia with all its nuances. We see a younger Rosaleen’s love for her husband and six children, her community, and those who pass through her life. We see the underlying strength of her faith. All this is tempered by the challenges of her later illness and its impact on those around her as the associated losses become increasingly apparent.

The multi-layered messiness of life is all here. We encounter the funny (Rosaleen insisting that it is her daughter, not herself, who wants to buy the new house); the stressful (the fuss over Rosaleen’s repeated phone calls; the kind (Rosaleen admiring the clean white socks peeking out between the frayed jeans and grubby shoes); and, the downright sad (“If I had the guts I’d throw myself out the window”). 

The professional ‘me’ is grateful to Pip for writing this book. It illustrates the path of a family caring for a loved parent. It is peppered with current thinking about dementia. It also shows some of the issues which arise within the caring role, for example, the inevitable tensions among siblings - thus providing the rest of us with permission to acknowledge and accept the difficulties involved:

“From a long way away, I heard myself scream, ‘You’re not the only one who loves our mother, we’re all trying to do our best.’ I didn’t care that my voice rang across the neighbourhood …”

The book leaves me thinking about those who are not lucky enough to have a family with the emotional, financial and time resources to care. How do we ensure people are well looked after at the end of their lives in our increasingly individualised culture? 

Song for Rosaleen is well written and is a consciously created work of beauty beginning with the cover design, through the quality of the print, careful editing and judicious layout. It would be a different book if it had been written 10 years in the future after greater digestion of the events involved. Would we the reader prefer a shorter, more refined memoir or do we draw unsought benefits from documentation of a recently completed pathway complete with its meanderings and diversions which would lose significance with greater hindsight?

Pip Desmond takes us beyond what is simple and obvious. She does not avoid the tricky question of who we become when we can no longer remember and our personalities change. She also provides her answer. Rosaleen’s strength continues and her life has meaning until the very end. 

"Confronted by her illness, her spirit rebelled and became fierce, as it had to. The fierceness was her essence, not an aberration. Mum wasn’t two people, one before and another after she got dementia.  The disease robbed her of almost everything, but it freed her intuition.

After a lifetime of being good and quiet, Mum demanded to be seen and heard.  Imprisoned in the unbearable isolation of forgetting, she shed her restraint and clamoured for connection.  When all else failed, she had to choose between staying with us and going home.  To end her suffering – and ours - she walked the path of starvation alone, an act of great courage and love.  Mum had picked up her wild woman torch and passed it on."

People wanting a good read about an older person nearing the end of her life in the context of a caring family will appreciate this book. Some may read it and envy the amount of care and support available within this caring family. Those with dementia or who are caring for someone with dementia may find the book both useful and challenging. 

About the author
Pip Desmond is a Wellington writer, editor and oral historian. She is the author of the award-winning Trust: A True Story of Women and Gangs and The War That Never Ended: New Zealand Veterans Remember Korea. Pip has an MA in creative writing and runs communications company 2Write with her husband Pat. They have three children and four beautiful grandchildren.


Click here to order Song for Rosaleen from Massey University Press. The book is also available from New Zealand bookshops and online through Amazon and Fishpond