Caregiving in the 1800s

 Often all you could do for a sick relative was comfort & lament. Image from Florida Center for Instructional Technology.

Often all you could do for a sick relative was comfort & lament. Image from Florida Center for Instructional Technology.

In the past few weeks, I have been helping my 90-year-old mother make the transition from her home in Florida to an independent-living facility in Virginia. Although I am grateful that she is healthy and will be closer when and if problems arise, the logistic details and emotional issues accompanying the move are large.

Our experience has made me think about Julia Wilbur and other caregivers of her day. What happened to the sick and/or elderly? What occurred when no daughters or nieces (or occasionally sons and nephews) could take up the slack to provide care?

Julia Wilbur: Dutiful Daughter and Aunt...to a Point

As I described in my biography of Julia Wilbur, she was the one unmarried sibling in a family of 10. Her mother died shortly after giving birth to the youngest child in the family. Julia, then age 19, stepped up to take on care for the younger siblings. She did not keep a diary at this time, but I cannot imagine her protesting her role. Her two older sisters were already married and off on their own. Although her father remarried a few years later, it does not seem that stepmother Sally (and, later still, another stepmother named Laura, after Sally died) engendered much in the way of emotional ties. Indeed, once Julia did start her diary, she often lamented that she and her siblings were "motherless."

 Flowers placed upon the coffin from the coffin of julia's sister Sarah in 1858. Alas, the provider of the flowers--one of her brothers--himself died soon afterwards, of typhoid. From the  Quaker & Special Collections, haverford College.

Flowers placed upon the coffin from the coffin of julia's sister Sarah in 1858. Alas, the provider of the flowers--one of her brothers--himself died soon afterwards, of typhoid. From the  Quaker & Special Collections, haverford College.

Thus, in her 20s, Julia perhaps put her own feelings and ambitions in check. In 1844, at the end of that pivotal time of life, age 29, she left home and family care-giving to teach in Rochester in 1844. Did her caregiving preclude marriage, or would she have remained unmarried in any event? No answer, but her "blessed singleness" (as she described it) did give her more autonomy later in life.

Duty called again in 1858, when Julia was in her early 40s and had been teaching, living on her own, and getting involved in abolition and other issues. One of her sisters died shortly after giving birth, leaving an infant and a 2-year-old named Freda. It was decided that Julia would assume care of Freda, and another sister and brother-in-law would take in the infant, later named Sarah after her mother.

Again, Julia left her own life to assume care for a family member, in this case niece Freda. She became extremely attached to the girl. Freda called her "Auntie," but Julia looked upon Freda as the child she would raise to adulthood. Unfortunately for Julia, Freda's father re-assumed custody of his daughter, after initially agreeing to the arrangement. Through our 21st century eyes, it is expected a widowed father would maintain his relationship with his children; clearly, Julia did not see it that way. She mourned the loss of Freda for many years. 

And yet, both these experiences--care for the household in her 20s and the loss of Freda in her 40s--propelled Julia Wilbur to venture out of her circumstances in the Civil War.

When her father became more enfeebled, Julia was in Washington. Notably, although she felt torn about her duties and did go back to New York on several occasions, she did not completely leave her own life to care for him. 

How Typical?

In the 1800s, the home was the optimal center of care for the sick and elderly. Hospitals were places of last resort. 

Julia often wrote about visiting acutely ill family and friends, with loved ones taking turns sitting by the bedside of the afflicted. Doctors would visit and, for the wealthy, sometimes remain on scene for the duration, whether cure or death. It fell to family to feed, bathe, comfort, and tend to ailing patients.

Note the sad flowers in the photo above. One of her brothers decorated a coffin with them; he himself was buried less than a year later. Julia wrote in her diary about taking turns with other family members to sit by his bedside. When a huge fire raged nearby and he heard none of the hubbub, Julia realized that he was not dead for the world.

In 19th century families elsewhere, households accommodated the sick, elderly, and dying, as well as those with mental illnesses. Daily activity often swirled around people convalescing in their own or the "front room." 

Without a Family or Money

MonroePoorhouse.jpg

If you had no family but had money, you could at least guarantee fulfillment of your physical needs while remaining at home. With neither, the last stop could have been the poorhouse or other institutions for the indigent. Many grouped the elderly, indigent, mentally ill, and orphans in one place, and a rather unpleasant place at that--called an almshouse, poorhouse, asylum, etc.

In the mid to late 1800s, a few less draconian homes for seniors began to open, most often by groups taking care of their own. Some of the fraternal organizations, such as the Odd Fellows and Masons, maintained homes for members, as did some religious groups. Anyone who has visited Lincoln's Cottage in Washington knows that it sits on the campus of the Soldiers' Home, which did (and still does) maintain facilities for elderly veterans.

All in all, growing old or sick in 19th century America was not fun, but family helped lessen the pain and discomfort. 

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