Diane Keaton: New Bio Offers Lessons on Love, Legacies and Learning to be a Caregiver

Photo credit: Firooz Zahedi 2011

This week Diane Keaton published a memoir Then Again which is a wonderful journey through the lives of two women:  Diane and her mother, Dorothy Hall.  As opposed to some of the Mommie Dearest-type celebrity books, Diane weaves together her life and career with the memories and mementos of her mother, whom she calls “the love of my life.”

Before Dorothy passed in 2008 at the age of 86, she had lived 15 years with Alzheimer’s disease – a progressive brain disease where symptoms gradually worsen over a period of years.

Today, more than five million Americans are diagnosed with this disease and the Alzheimer’s Association tells us that one out of every two people over the age of 85 will develop Alzheimer’s.

What was so poignant to me as I read this book was Diane’s description of caring for her mother while also caring for her two small adopted children, which we know makes her one of the 24 million Sandwich Generation caregivers.  According to the Pew Research Center just over one of every eight Americans aged 40 to 60 is both raising a child and caring for a parent.  In addition, between seven to 10 million adults care for their aging parents long distance.

In the book, Diane describes her Sandwich Generation role this way:

“As Mother struggled to complete sentences, I watched Dexter, my daughter, and a few years later little Duke, my son, begin to form words as a means to capture the wonder of their developing minds.   The state of being a woman in between two loves – one as a daughter, the other as a mother – has changed me.  It’s been a challenge to witness the betrayal of such a cruel disease while learning to give love with the promise of stability.”  

Diane’s Rehearsal for the Role of a Lifetime:  Caregiver

I have always loved Diane Keaton.  I love her quirky sensibility, her fashionable love for gloves and hats, her brilliance as both a dramatic (The Godfather, Reds) and romantic comedy (Annie Hall, Something’s Gotta Give) actress, her fearless independence as a single woman, her love of turtleneck sweaters, her becoming a mother at age 50 and of course, her Southern California-girl roots.

But, until I started reading her book and doing more research on her career, I had not realized that Diane had been in a dress rehearsal for her role as caregiver to her mother through some of her movie roles.

Perhaps one of her best roles was in Marvin’s Room (1996) also starring Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio and Hume Cronyn.  In the movie, Diane plays “Bessie” who is a family caregiver for her father (Cronyn) as well as her aunt played by Gwen Verdon.

We eventually find out that Bessie has been diagnosed with leukemia and her survival may depend on a bone marrow transplant from her estranged sister, played by Streep.  The film then delivers its message that even in dysfunctional families, there is a healing power to love.

Diane also played a reluctant caregiver to an ever-devilish Jack Nicholson in one of my favorite movies, Something’s Gotta Give  (on a side note:  I read an article that described director Nancy Meyers’ movies, of which Something’s Gotta Give is one of her best, as “real estate porn for women” – I agree and loved Diane’s Hamptons home in the movie!).

Jack, who had been dating Diane’s daughter played by the 30-something Amanda Peet, suffers a heart attack and must be watched over by a disapproving but ultimately romantically intrigued Diane.

In The Other Sister, Diane played the mother to a mentally challenged daughter played by Juliette Lewis, and she directed and starred in Hangin’ Up about three sisters, where she played alongside Meg Ryan and Lisa Kudrow, caring for their terminally ill father played by Walter Matthau.

Leaving a Legacy

What is perhaps the best lesson of Diane’s book is the legacy that she has left for her children.  Then Again is not just about Diane and her mother, but a gift to her children.  She describes how her mother kept scrapbooks and pieces of paper with the word “Think” written on them.  The lesson for her children through this book is Diane will be the torchbearer for her mother’s mantra to “Think.”

I have spoken to so many family caregivers who truly believe that creating a scrapbook, writing in a journal, helping a loved one to create their legacy or life’s story or simply posting stories to a personal online community like those you can create at Lotsa Helping Hands, are therapeutic in the process of watching a loved one age and decline or struggle with an illness or disease.

It is Diane’s character in Marvin’s Room, Bessie, who has sacrificed everything to care for her aunt and father, but who has found fulfillment and contentment in her role as caregiver. In Bessie’s words, “I’ve had such love in my life. I look back, and I’ve had such love.”
Note:  Sherri Snelling is writing a book on celebrities who are caregivers to be published in 2012.


  1. Miriyam Gevirtz says:

    I loved the film and was moved to tears by it. My mother had dementia also and I was a caregiver though not the main one even though I wanted to but couldn’t because of being far and not having money.

    • Sherri Snelling says:

      Miriyam – thank you for your comments – I too loved this film and just about everything Diane Keaton does! Caregivers come in all shapes, sizes and circumstances – I’m sure you provided the care your could to your Mom – don’t feel guilty about the distance – I know it’s hard but going from guilt to gratitude over caregiving is something a lot of caregivers deal with.

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